If you have cancer and experience feelings of despair or hopelessness, you aren’t alone.
Cancer brings up fears for everyone it affects, and these fears can become overwhelming.
For some people with cancer, overwhelming feelings become frequent and may develop into depression.
The National Cancer Institute says up to 25 percent of cancer patients report feeling depressed to their doctor. The amount of cancer patients actually coping with depression is likely much higher because few people feel comfortable reporting depression to their doctor.
According to the American Psychological Association, research suggests that 20 to 60 percent of cancer patients experience symptoms of depression. It’s a common response, and it’s treatable.
Thankfully, a number of effective medications and therapies are available to help cancer patients coping with depression.
Antidepressants and Counseling
The two most effective therapies for depression include antidepressant medication and mental health counseling. On their own, these therapies can lessen depression. Many people find a combination of the two is more effective than either one alone.
Different antidepressant medications are available for people with cancer and some of them may help with cancer side effects such as pain. Antidepressant medications affect everyone differently, and some people may have to try different ones before finding one that works well for them.
Mental health counseling is becoming more available at cancer treatment centers and hospitals around the country. Counseling services, including support groups, are often offered free of charge to cancer patients and their families.
Complementary and Integrative Therapies
Certain complementary therapies are effective at lessening depression, especially when integrated with counseling, antidepressant medication or both.
Various studies show yoga can improve feelings of depression and anxiety by modulating the stress response. Research suggests the mood-regulating benefits of yoga are similar to those achieved through exercise and relaxation techniques.
A 2005 German study evaluated the emotional effects of yoga on women who described themselves as “emotionally distressed.” Participants took two 90-minute yoga classes a week for three months. Reported feelings of depression improved by 50 percent, anxiety by 30 percent and overall well-being by 65 percent. Sleep quality, back pain and headaches also improved.
Gentle and restorative yoga classes are the most appropriate for those with mesothelioma or other types of cancer.
A 2014 Johns Hopkins University study reviewed 47 clinical trials on meditation and found it can improve depression, anxiety and pain. The majority of the trials involved mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) meditation.
MBSR meditation is a practice of observing thoughts that occur in the mind without judgement. The point is not to eradicate or limit thoughts, but rather to witness and acknowledge thoughts without judging them or becoming emotionally attached. With practice, it becomes easier to watch thoughts without reacting as they pass through the mind.
A collection of guided mindfulness meditations by Ronald Siegel, a professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School, are available to download for free.
The herb St. John’s Wort is widely used for depression, but its use is controversial, and it may interfere with certain cancer treatments. Some studies suggest it is effective for mild to moderate depression, while others have found no benefit.
The combination of St. John’s Wort with prescription antidepressants can cause serotonin syndrome, a potentially life-threatening increase in serotonin levels that causes tremors, confusion and muscle stiffness. It rarely leads to death.
St. John’s Wort can weaken certain prescription medications such as blood thinners like Warfarin, heart medicine like Digoxin, cancer medications, antidepressants and birth control pills.
Cancer patients should discuss all herbal supplements they are interested in taking with their oncologist.
Questions and Answers from the September 2015 Online Support Group
Patients and caregivers asked a number of questions during the recent online support group. Here we include answers to some of them.
Q: Are blood clots a side effect of chemotherapy?
A: Yes, chemotherapy can cause blood clots in some people. Other factors may increase the risk of blood clots, such as prolonged bed rest, obesity and smoking cigarettes. Symptoms of a blood clot include pain, swelling and redness. These symptoms shouldn’t be ignored because blood clots could lead to a life-threatening pulmonary embolism, in which part of a blood clot breaks off and travels to the lung.
Treatment and prevention of blood clots primarily involves medication, but occasionally surgical procedures are used to clear up a clot to prevent embolism.