Depression during cancer treatment: When it’s more than the blues

We all experience sadness, stress and anxiety sometimes. A cancer diagnosis can amplify these feelings, with the stress and anxiety it adds to your daily life and relationships. But in some cases, prolonged feelings of sadness, stress and anxiety might be more than the blues. They may be signs of clinical depression.

With one in three people experiencing a major depressive episode in their lifetime, clinical depression is more common than many people realize. And a major life event like a cancer diagnosis and cancer treatment – whether your own or that of a loved one – can trigger it. In fact, as many as 25% of cancer patients are dealing with depression.

Watch for these signs of depression

How can you tell when you are experiencing clinical depression vs. when you’re struggling with grief, sadness or even sleep deprivation?

If you’re dealing with at least four or more of the following symptoms every day for two weeks or longer, it’s time to talk to your doctor.

  • Loss of pleasure or interest in normal activities you once enjoyed, such as hobbies, socializing and/or sex
  • A change in appetite
  • Difficulty paying attention or concentrating
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Inability to concentrate, focus or remember things
  • Feeling worthless
  • Increased agitation, anxiety and restlessness
  • New physical complaints, such as headaches, stomachaches, or muscle pain
  • Lack of energy
  • Change in sleep habits
  • Feeling a sense of doom or preoccupation with thoughts of death
  • Thoughts of harming yourself

It’s worth noting that many of these symptoms – such as insomnia, a foggy memory, fatigue and appetite changes – are also common side effects of cancer treatment. But if you’re experiencing multiple symptoms every day for at least two weeks, it’s important to talk to your doctor about them. Even if they ultimately don’t add up to be depression, your doctor can help you find ways to cope with them.

Get help with depression

Depression can be scary, and for many people, it can be difficult to talk about. But depression – like cancer – isn’t a disease you should try to fight alone. By taking the time to talk to your health care provider about the symptoms you’re experiencing, you’re taking the first step to getting the support you need. And, if it helps, talk to a friend or family member, and ask them to go to your appointment with you.

Your doctor may prescribe mediations, such as antidepressants. Your doctor will determine which type of medication is best after your evaluation. Your doctor may also encourage you to seek counseling so you can talk through your challenges with a professional therapist. 

In conjunction with medication and/or therapy, your doctor may also encourage you to adopt healthy lifestyle habits, such as:

Pets can also offer comfort, companionship and love during difficult times, as can spending time outdoors.

Don’t suffer alone

Depression is treatable medical condition, and you don’t need to suffer alone. 

At MD Anderson, our medical team frequently works with patients and caregivers facing depression and is ready to help. Our social work counselors are available to help patients and caregivers cope with depression, and experts in our Psychiatric Oncology Center specialize in treating depression and anxiety. Your MD Anderson care team can provide you a referral or point you in the right direction to get you the help you need.

So, if you suspect you are depressed, we urge you to speak up.

Pamela J. Schlembach is a radiation oncologist at MD Anderson in The Woodlands.

Request an appointment at MD Anderson online or by calling 1-877-632-6789.