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What to do about depression when battling cancer

You may have a major depressive disorder if, for most of the day, you experience five or more of these symptoms during most days over a period of at least two weeks.

You may have a major depressive disorder if, for most of the day, you experience five or more of these symptoms during most days over a period of at least two weeks.


Along with a diagnosis of cancer, people commonly experience bouts of sadness. Two or three out of 10 may develop depression. Others may experience a grief reaction with symptoms like those of depression but that come and go.

“The majority of people do get through this really stressful and emotionally laden experience without becoming depressed,” says Upstate Cancer Center psychologist Jeffrey Schweitzer, PhD. That said, people with a cancer diagnosis are at higher risk for depression — and he wants them to know help is available.

A cancer diagnosis affects the whole family. In fact, Schweitzer says, studies looking at female partners of men diagnosed with prostate cancer showed the women experience more distress. In some cases, women experienced depression or anxiety at twice the rate of men.

The best buffer? Open, direct communication and problem solving.

(Listen to a "HealthLink on Air" interview with Jeffrey Schweitzer, PhD, about how people with cancer can deal with depression.)

“It‘s important not just to be talking about the facts of a diagnosis and what they heard from the doctors, but also how they‘re feeling about all that. They may be feeling scared, perhaps. Or sad. Or even angry about the circumstances.

“For them to be able to openly communicate about those things can prevent that from turning into a depression or turning into anxiety, or isolating family members from one another. And it can also really empower them to work together to problem solve.”

Schweitzer says depression is generally treated the same, whether the person has cancer or not. However, some anti-depressants may not be prescribed if they would interfere with medications the person is taking to treat his or her cancer.

He says it‘s important that depression is identified and treated. People who are depressed typically lose interest in activities they used to enjoy. Their quality of life may seem to deteriorate, and they could lose motivation to follow their prescribed treatment. They may develop anxiety, too, which amplifies their fears and worries.

All of this can have an impact on how well cancer treatment works. Schweitzer mentions studies comparing groups of cancer patients who have depression with groups that are not depressed; the group with depression has a poorer survival rate.

Easing depression in patients or caregivers “all starts with your support network,” he says. That includes family members, friends, neighbors and your team of medical providers. It‘s unclear exactly how these connections help, but Schweitzer says they do.

“At best, cancer is tremendously stressful, not just for you but for your family and loved ones,” he says. “At worst, it can be life-threatening, life-altering, traumatic.”

Schweitzer encourages people to be open with their medical providers. “Talk with them about any emotional symptoms or psychological symptoms and how you‘re experiencing the diagnosis. If you‘re feeling it‘s too overwhelming, it‘s too much — if you‘re engaging in that open, emotional communications with family, friends and community, and you‘re actively problem solving with them and your doctors — and you‘re still feeling down, it might be time to talk to a professional.”

Cancer Care magazine winter 2019 coverThis article appears in the winter 2019 issue of Cancer Care magazine.