There's a connection between any kind of chronic illness and depression, but cancer can raise the stakes. Every cancer patient handles their diagnosis differently, and while many individuals with cancer possess great strength and determination, depression may still rear its ugly head.
Initial depression and anxiety after a cancer diagnosis are expected. Most cancer patients will experience some fear about treatment (and unpredictable outcomes), fear of dependance on others, loneliness and possibly even suicidal thoughts, says WebMD.
For many, one of the biggest signs is a loss of interest in activities that used to bring them joy. That can lead to a loss of identity after a cancer diagnosis.
In fact, one out of four cancer patients is diagnosed with clinical depression, according to The American Cancer Society. Individuals deemed clinically depressed are those who experience at least five of these symptoms every day for up to two or three weeks, or so much so that it interferes with daily activities:
- Ongoing sad, hopeless, or "empty" mood for most of the day
- Loss of interest or pleasure in almost all activities most of the time
- Major weight loss (when not dieting) or weight gain
- Being slowed down or restless and agitated almost every day, enough for others to notice
- Extreme tiredness (fatigue) or loss of energy
- Trouble sleeping with early waking, sleeping too much, or not being able to sleep
- Trouble focusing thoughts, remembering, or making decisions
- Feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless
- Frequent thoughts of death or suicide (not just fear of death), suicide plans or attempts
When treatment is compromised
Suffering from clinical depression can actually affect the course of treatment, which can influence survival rates in some instances, as the video above explains.
A study conducted by researchers at the Center for Psychiatric Oncology at Harvard suggests the moods of cancer patients can impact well-being and survival.
"It may be that people who are depressed may not be able to participate in treatment in the way that they need to get the full benefit," lead study author Dr. William Pirl told the Cancer Network. "Perhaps it is that those who are depressed are not doing all of the healthy routines that they need to do to stay healthy during cancer treatment such as exercise and eating well."
When trying to discern whether or not a patient suffers from cancer-related depression, Pirl suggests patients be monitored over time."There are times that we know are particularly vulnerable for people like the first month after diagnosis, around the completion of a treatment or change in a treatment. Screening at that time may not give you an accurate picture of how that person is doing overall. So, we recommended doing screening at more than one time."
Even if a cancer patient isn't clinically depressed and is simply suffering from the general confusion and pain caused by the disease, it's still necessary that a professional be there to help.
"I would hope that wherever someone is getting cancer treatment, there is an oncology social worker, and I think that oncology social work is a great place to start," says Pirl. "Oncology social workers are skilled and trained in being able to assess distress and are able to triage patients to the right kind of treatment. Whether that be working with the oncology social worker in counseling, or a referral to a psychologist or psychiatrist."
It isn't easy to delineate between sadness associated with cancer and clinical depression, but support from family and professionals matters. No matter who's suffering from depression or why, talking about it is the first step to healing.