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Cancer and Depression: Everything You Need to Know + Treatment Tips

Written by Karen Selby, RN

According to the American Cancer Society, depression is a reality for 1 in 4 cancer patients. On top of doctor visits, chemotherapy, radiation, prescription drugs and other worries, depression can really take a toll on mental health and make things even more difficult.

Whether you’ve been diagnosed with mesothelioma or another type of cancer, you and your family are likely grappling with a variety of emotions and challenges. It’s important to understand the link between mental health and cancer so that you can be prepared to get the help you need.

Read on to learn more about how depression affects cancer patients or skip to our infographic for statistics and treatment tips.

Risk Factors and Symptoms of Depression

To understand cancer-related depression, we need to take a look at the various factors that put patients at a higher risk for depression. Once you understand your level of risk, you’ll need to learn about the symptoms of clinical depression and when normal sadness crosses the line into clinical depression.

Who Is at Risk?

Anyone can develop clinical depression as young as their teenage years. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, having a chronic illness such as cancer puts you at a higher risk of developing depression, along with the following factors:

  • Experiencing a traumatic event such as abuse or the death of a loved one

  • Abusing alcohol or recreational drugs

  • Having a history of other mental health disorders or eating disorders

  • Being directly related to someone with depression or another mental health disorder

If any of these risk factors apply to you or a loved one, take note of whether or not you begin to experience any symptoms of depression.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression

Clinical depression encompasses more than the normal emotional sadness that comes with a cancer diagnosis or other difficult life event. It’s important to be able to distinguish clinical depression from normal sadness. To do so, ask yourself if you’ve experienced any of the following symptoms that you know aren’t directly related to your cancer:

  • Changes in normal sleeping patterns, like insomnia or hypersomnia

  • Extreme tiredness or lack of energy

  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide

  • Intense feelings of sadness, hopelessness and worthlessness

  • Loss of interest in enjoyable activities like hobbies or sports

  • Random outbursts of tears, anger or irritability, even over small issues

  • Trouble focusing, concentrating, thinking or making decisions

  • Unexplained appetite increase or decrease resulting in weight gain or loss

Symptoms of clinical depression

Distinguishing Cancer Symptoms from Depression Symptoms

It’s sometimes difficult to ascertain whether a symptom’s underlying cause is related to clinical depression or cancer treatment, as there is a lot of overlap in symptoms. For example, side effects caused by chemotherapy — similar to those caused by depression — include sudden changes in mood and appetite.

If you’ve experienced any of the above symptoms for longer than two weeks, or if these symptoms are causing you to be unable to perform daily functions, talk to your doctor. They’ll rule out the possibility of your symptoms being related to your cancer treatment, hormonal changes or vitamin deficiencies. If your symptoms aren’t related to these issues, you may want to seek treatment to help you cope with your cancer-related depression.

Treating and Coping with Cancer-Related Depression

When dealing with depression that comes with a cancer diagnosis, it’s important to remember that you’re not alone. Your team of oncologists and psychiatrists are here to work with you to find treatment options to improve your quality of life.

Common Antidepressant Medication

Cancer-related depression can be successfully treated via prescribed medication — however, most cancer patients with depression go untreated. According to the National Cancer Institute, only 16% of cancer patients who experience depression take medication for it.

After visiting your primary care physician and determining your symptoms aren’t related to your cancer, you’ll want to talk to a mental health professional. A psychiatrist may diagnose you and determine the nature of your depression — and discuss the possibility of prescription antidepressants.

Comparison of antidepressants

In general, antidepressants can be categorized into selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin and norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). These are similar in that they both help balance neurotransmitters in your brain, which affect your mood and emotions.

Your doctor may suggest a combination of two different medications, or recommend another medication to enhance the effects of your antidepressant. Always consult your doctor before trying any new medication.

SSRIs typically come with minimal side effects and are not likely to cause other unwanted problems. Common SSRIs include:

  • Citalopram (Celexa)

  • Escitalopram (Lexapro)

  • Fluoxetine (Prozac)

  • Paroxetine (Paxil)

  • Sertraline (Zoloft)

  • Vilazodone (Viibryd)

SNRIs may help treat chronic pain in addition to depression. Common SNRIs include:

  • Desvenlafaxine (Pristiq)

  • Duloxetine (Cymbalta)

  • Venlafaxine (Effexor)

Percentage of cancer patients taking medication for depression

Support Groups and Counseling

When combined with doctor-prescribed medication, support groups and counseling may help ease depression symptoms in cancer patients. Many support programs are even offered to cancer patients and their families for free. The Anxiety and Depression Association of America can help you find a support group near you.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is another effective form of mental health support. CBT is a form of counseling that helps cancer patients become more aware of their depression and address the inaccuracies in their negative thinking in an objective way. This helps patients better manage difficult situations as a result.

Considerations for Caregivers

Caregivers are also more likely to develop depression. This is because they are often tasked with difficult duties and may develop feelings of hopelessness for a loved one’s future. If you’re a caregiver for a cancer patient with depression, remember to take care of your own mental health first. Then, consider the following tips:

  • Express that you are there for them. Tell them you love them and that you are concerned for their health and well-being.

  • Encourage them to get out of the house. Even though it may be difficult, offer to accompany them to doctor appointments and other activities.

  • Understand that depression is a clinical disorder. Telling someone to simply cheer up is unhelpful and may make things worse.

Whether you’re a caregiver or patient looking to better manage your symptoms, the visual below provides a quick look at statistics, symptoms and science-based treatment tips for cancer-related depression.

The Mesothelioma Center's Cancer and depression infographic

No one is ever prepared for a cancer diagnosis, and depression can easily make a tough situation even more painful. With consistent communication with health care professionals and the support of your community, you don’t have to let depression get in the way of maximizing your quality of life.

If you’re ever facing mental health or substance abuse challenges and don’t know where to turn, call SAMHSA’s National Helpline at 1-800-662-HELP (4357) for 24-hour confidential support.

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Last Modified April 22, 2020

Registered Nurse and Patient Advocate

Karen Selby joined Asbestos.com in 2009. She is a registered nurse with a background in oncology and thoracic surgery and was the regional director of a tissue bank before becoming a Patient Advocate at The Mesothelioma Center. Karen has assisted surgeons with thoracic surgeries such as lung resections, lung transplants, pneumonectomies, pleurectomies and wedge resections. She is also a member of the Academy of Oncology Nurse & Patient Navigators.

Walter Pacheco, Managing Editor at Asbestos.com
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9 Cited Article Sources

The sources on all content featured in The Mesothelioma Center at Asbestos.com include medical and scientific studies, peer-reviewed studies and other research documents from reputable organizations.

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