Depression and Cancer

Temporary versus persistent helplessness, hopelessness, and worthlessness.

It is common to feel sad, discouraged, or moody after a cancer diagnosis. You may be facing new limits on what you can do and feel anxious about treatment outcomes and the future. It may be hard to adapt to a new reality and to cope with the changes that come with the diagnosis and the demands of treatment.

Temporary feelings of sadness are expected. Anger and irritability are also common. Many people feel distracted, anxious, and indecisive. Others may struggle with guilt and blame. But if these feelings persist for more than a couple of weeks and are so overwhelming that they interfere with your ability to carry on with daily life, you may have depression.

What is Depression

Depression can be treated. Don’t think you should have to control depression on your own. Your doctor may give you medicine or may refer you to other experts. Getting help is important for your life and your health.

Below are common signs of depression. If you have any of the following signs for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor about treatment.

  • Feelings of sadness that don’t go away
  • Having a sense of guilt or feeling unworthy
  • A short temper, or feeling moody
  • A hard time thinking or concentrating
  • A long period of crying, or if you cry many times each day
  • No interest in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
  • Unintended weight gain or loss not due to illness or treatment
  • Sleep problems
  • Fatigue that doesn’t go away

The signs and symptoms of depression are more than a case of the blues. They are persistent, impairing, and distressing. They should always be taken seriously.

Call a doctor right away if you have:

  • Thoughts about hurting or killing yourself
  • Feelings of helplessness or hopelessness, as if life has no meaning
  • Emotions that make it hard to do normal, day-to-day things and go on for many days
  • Trouble breathing

Overcoming depression

Recovery from depression takes time, but treatment can improve the quality of life even if you have cancer. Treatments for depression include:

  • Cognitive behavioral therapy or talk therapy
  • Antidepressant medications

Depression is treatable and not “normal” for cancer patients

No one has to manage the emotional stress that cancer causes alone. Keep your cancer care team involved in and aware of how you are feeling emotionally. If you think you may be depressed, ask your doctor to refer you to a psychotherapist or counselor.

The National Cancer Institute has additional resources about sadness and depression to help you.

Take an anonymous online screening:

Sources: National Institute of Mental Health, National Cancer Institute.