Coping With Emotions

Cancer and Depression: The Connection between Two Tough Struggles

Cancer and depression are conditions that seem inextricably linked, at times, but help is out there. Ask a close friend for support and be sure to talk to your care team about any changes in mood.

Often times, cancer and depression are linked together. Patients receiving news of a cancer diagnosis are instantly under new emotional stress, feeling panic, anxiety and a loss of control. But depression and anxiety could be side effects of some cancer treatment options, or even the cancer itself according to some studies. Read on to learn more about how mood challenges and cancer can often go hand in hand.

Cancer Itself

Sometimes, it isn’t just the news of cancer that can cause depression or anxiety. The cancer itself may be causing depression. A paper published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences discusses the chemical changes that occur in the brain once a tumor grows in the body. It is possible that cancer cells release chemicals that alter brain chemistry. While this increased chance of depression may be one more reason that cancer is awful, it can offer patients some consolation when they know that the depression or anxiety is another side effect that may lesson after treatment. Even so, patients should notify their healthcare team so they can update their treatment plans.

Treatment Precautions

Treating cancer is a complicated dance, filled with radiation, chemotherapy and other interventions. Each treatment plan is unique to the patient; clinicians take into consideration the health of the patient, the type of the cancer and multiple other factors to ensure the best chance at success. While clinicians work diligently to reduce the possibility of side effects, there is always a chance that a patient can end up dealing with issues from the treatment, including mood side effects.

According to, for example, certain hormone therapies can lead to an increased risk of depression. Chemotherapy treatments have long track records of causing depression in patients, too, though it can be unclear if it is the treatment itself or the intense side effects (fatigue and lethargy, nausea and vomiting, etc.) that leads to the depression. A study from the World Journal of Surgical Oncology found that patients undergoing chemotherapy were more likely to experience feelings of distress, anxiety and depression throughout treatment.

It isn’t just depression and feelings of anxiety that are tied to chemotherapy treatment. Indeed, the phenomenon of “chemo brain,” or the memory loss and judgment issues that sometimes follow survivors well into their senior years. A literature review in The Scientist refers to research that shows images of the brains of cancer survivors, demonstrating decreased volume and responsiveness in areas linked to social behavior, decision-making and memory.

Coping Well

Cancer patients have a lot working against them when it comes to depression, but there are still ways they can work to cope with feelings of sadness and anxiety. To keep depression at bay, remember to speak up. Telling a trusted friend or clinician on your treatment team that you are feeling blue, sad, anxious or simply not yourself is a wise decision. The more you are able to communicate about your emotional state, the better your family and medical team can rally behind you, offer support and monitor your symptoms.

Take advantage of medication and talk therapy when it comes to cancer and depression, too. Support groups and therapist appointments are wonderful ways to share your experience and feelings, and antidepressants can work with your brain chemistry to offer some relief. Keep your medical team abreast of any changes in mood or behavior after beginning your antidepressant regimen, and never stop taking the medication without speaking to your doctor first.

Cancer is emotionally taxing on its own, but it can seem almost impossible to defeat when you are also suffering from depression. Keep the lines of communication open, ask for help and take help when someone offers it to give yourself the best chance at managing or overcoming your depression.

UVA Cancer Center offers support from psychologists, social workers, groups and more.

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Haley Burress
Haley Burress