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Cancer & Depression

How to Cope and Find Hope

by Edward Leigh, MA

Wellness image

Cancer and depression – those two words seem to belong together. Wouldn’t everyone be depressed if they were diagnosed with cancer? Is being depressed considered “normal” after receiving the diagnosis? Of course, people feel a variety of emotions after a diagnosis, but when is depression considered a “goes with the territory” reaction versus one that requires treatment?

Does everyone with cancer experience some depression?
After a cancer diagnosis, we feel a roller coaster of emotions due to many factors, such as long-term survival issues, changes in appearance, and altered family roles. Life as we know it has undergone dramatic fluctuations. Nearly everyone with cancer will feel sadness, shock, and yes, some depression. However, over time, the majority of people will eventually adjust to their new lives and engage in many of the same activities that were part of their lives before cancer.

But some people don’t bounce back. The American Cancer Society estimates that 25 percent of people with cancer do not adjust and, instead, experience an illness called clinical depression. Moreover, clinical depression not only happens to people with cancer, but also to family members. The good news is that this depression can be treated.

Understanding Depression
Some people are under the impression that if a significantly depressed person did something enjoyable or fun, then their depression would subside. A walk in the park, a new outfit, or a movie may help someone who is mildly sad, but not a person with severe, untreated depression.

A walk in the park, a new outfit, or a movie may help someone who is mildly sad, but not a person with severe, untreated depression.

Author of Article photo

Edward Leigh

People with clinical depression are not weak or lacking in willpower. Telling them to “just pull yourself together” does not help and only makes them feel worse. Depression is an illness, and therefore, it can’t simply be willed away.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression
A variety of behaviors may point to clinical depression in a person experiencing cancer. These are common symptoms of clinical depression:

  • loss of interest or enjoyment in almost all activities most of the time (on a daily basis);
  • lack of energy or constant fatigue;
  • sleep issues, either sleeping too much or problems falling asleep;
  • weight changes, such as losing weight (without dieting) or significant gains;
  • significant mood changes, from lethargy to agitation;
  • chronic feelings of worthlessness, guilt, and hopelessness;
  • inability to concentrate or make decisions; and
  • frequent thoughts or verbalizations regarding death or suicide (not just fear of death), including suicide plans or attempts.

If five or more of these symptoms occur nearly every day for two weeks or longer, or are significant enough to interfere with normal activities, an evaluation for clinical depression by an appropriate mental health professional is warranted. It is also important to recognize that the cancer itself or associated treatments may cause similar changes. A careful evaluation by a mental health professional is required to sort out clinical depression from other causes.

Seeking Help
A variety of treatments are available for people experiencing cancer and clinical depression:

  • Psychotherapy This is also known as “talk therapy,” and it is an effective way to treat depression. Studies have proven that talking to an expert about your feelings can help you cope.
  • Antidepressant medications If your doctor prescribes these medications, give them time. It may take four weeks or more before you notice a change in your mood, and possibly longer before you feel the full benefits.

Helping Yourself
Psychotherapy and/or medications are the most important steps to recovery. However, there are things you can do to help yourself feel better during active treatment for depression.

  • Set realistic goals. The cancer experience is overwhelming. Focus on small, realistic goals to ease yourself back into daily life.
  • Do what you enjoy. After treatment is initiated, set aside time to engage in activities you used to find enjoyable. Take a walk. Go to the movies. Revisit a hobby that you set aside years ago.
  • Exercise. There’s an increasing amount of evidence that suggests exercise helps alleviate depression. When you’re considering an exercise plan, first speak to your healthcare team to determine what is appropriate for you based on your individual situation.

Through proper treatment, the cloud of depression can be lifted, and the sun will shine again.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Edward Leigh, a ten-year colon cancer survivor, travels the U.S. speaking at cancer events and presenting his uplifting program “Trauma to Triumph.” He is the founder and director of the Center for Healthcare Communication. He has appeared on The Today Show and the Discovery Health Channel. He can be reached at (800) 677-3256 or through

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2010.