Responsible for approximately 25% of deaths in the United States, cancer is without a doubt a widespread disease which can affect virtually anyone. According to the American Cancer Society, over 8 million people throughout the country have been diagnosed with a form of cancer until now. From drastic lifestyle changes to facing one’s mortality, the challenges people suffering from a malignant disease encounter are numerous and may arise at any time during their journey. However, recently diagnosed patients are significantly more prone to experiencing intense emotional upheavals, as they have not yet come to terms with the novel situation they were suddenly thrown into.
While emotional responses such as anger or guilt are quite frequent among individuals struggling with cancer, depression is also highly prevalent. Considering how common cancer has become in recent decades, most people are aware that it is often a terminal disease, as well as that undergoing treatment can be a very exhausting process, both physically and emotionally. Thus, a lot of patients will understandably feel sadness, despair, pessimism, hopelessness or even anticipatory grief after receiving a cancer diagnosis. Depression ensues when these emotions fail to subside or, on the contrary, become stronger, within several weeks following diagnosis.
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How Ordinary Is Depression Among Cancer Patients?
The results of studies aimed at estimating the prevalence of depression among cancer patients vary greatly, depending on factors such as assessment technique and population, as well as on the time period research were conducted in. While a 1990 study suggests that it occurs in approximately 25% of people who suffer from cancer, recent findings indicate that depression is considerably more widespread nowadays. At the moment, 58% of cancer patients experience various depressive syndromes, whereas Major Depressive Disorder is present in 38% of them.
Also known as major depression, Major Depressive Disorder is the most serious type of depression. Unlike reactive depression, which is a milder form, it has a chronic nature and implies severe symptoms such as:
- persistent feelings of guilt or worthlessness
- significantly reduced interest or pleasure in most daily activities, including hobbies
- insomnia or excessive sleeping
- difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- fatigue or loss of energy
- changes in appetite
- restlessness or irritation
- unintentional weight loss or gain
- recurring thoughts of death or suicide
Finding out you have a disease which will inevitably affect most aspects of your life is never easy. Nonetheless, not every cancer patient will experience depression. There are plenty of factors which can influence one’s risk of developing depression after a cancer diagnosis, including personal variables such as socioeconomic status, religious attitudes, cultural and ethnic characteristics, personality traits, coping style, and social support.
Who Is More Likely to Develop Depression After a Cancer Diagnosis?
As previously stated, certain aspects can increase one’s chances of experiencing depressive symptoms as a cancer patient. The main risk factors for depression in individuals struggling with malignant diseases include:
- financial difficulty or poverty
- young age
- lack of social support
- the presence of distressing cancer-related symptoms such as pain
- a personal history of substance abuse
- social isolation
- suffering from advanced cancer
- pre-existent depression or another mental illness
- a family history of depression or anxiety
- a previous negative experience with cancer
- the location of the tumor (it was found that people diagnosed with lung, pancreatic, neck or head cancer are more prone to depression)
- recurrence of cancer
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How to Recognize Depression
Since the majority of cancer patients will experience feelings of sadness, irritability or hopelessness at some point during their treatment, it may be difficult to tell whether your emotions are proportional to the situation you are going through. The number of symptoms you experience, as well as their intensity and duration, is usually a reliable indicator in this respect. Paying attention to these factors will help you determine if what you are feeling is within the healthy range. In addition to the previous signs, depression is also associated with the following symptoms:
- feeling numb
- withdrawal from your family and friends
- frequent crying
- headaches, muscle pain or digestive problems which do not have a somatic cause
- low self-esteem
- feeling overwhelmed
- neglecting your health and appearance
If you notice some of these signs, try to remember when you have first felt this way. After receiving a cancer diagnosis, it is not uncommon to find yourself struggling to adjust to the news for a while. However, if your symptoms do not alleviate within several weeks and are also preventing you from performing day-to-day activities, you are likely suffering from a depressive disorder. Inability to be actively involved in your everyday life is another major tell-tale sign of depression.
Regardless of the conclusion you reach, we strongly encourage you to discuss with a mental health specialist. Following a professional evaluation, they will be able to tell you whether you are at risk for depression or have already developed it, as well as to offer you appropriate advice for your personal circumstances. If you worry about the cost of these services, it is important to know that a large number of cancer centers and non-profit organizations in the U.S. provide mental health counseling to cancer patients at a lower price or even free of charge.
The Importance of Seeking Treatment as a Cancer Patient Suffering from Depression
Benefiting from treatment is crucial to anyone struggling with a depressive disorder, as symptoms tend to worsen over time, which may have serious consequences. Untreated depression often entails a poor quality of life and can also lead to alcohol abuse, social anxiety, excessive weight gain or loss, premature death, dysfunctional interpersonal relationships, self-destructive behavior, and suicide. A 2008 study found that the suicide rate in cancer patients is twice as high as that observed in the general population. The study also revealed that the suicide risk in cancer patients is highest in the first 5 years after diagnosis.
Treatment for depression is widely available and, depending on the severity of your condition, some approaches may be more suitable than others. Only a specialist in mental health will be able to recommend you effective treatment for your symptoms. While each cancer patient experiences depression in a unique way and thus requires a personalized treatment regimen, it was found that the most effective therapeutic approach is a combination of cognitive-behavioral techniques, supportive psychotherapy, and antidepressant medication.