Breast Cancer And Depression: What You Need To Know

Cancer and depression have a dangerous relationship. Cancer contributes to depression, and depression can make it hard to follow through with proper treatment. The two conditions can exacerbate each other and make someone feel trapped. But it’s not hopeless.

A cancer diagnosis will come with fear, sadness, and worry. No matter how strong and positive a person is, there are dark days that come with cancer. But depression is different in that it’s more permanent and has emotional as well as behavioral and physical symptoms. But because of the sadness already associated with cancer, depression can be hard to spot in a patient. Here we’ll talk about how patients and caregivers can recognize and respond to depression during cancer treatment. (For signs of caregiver depression, see our article here.)

Photo: AdobeStock/
Photo: AdobeStock/

Cancer and Depression

As many as 1 in 4 people with cancer struggle with clinical depression. A diagnosis can derail what was otherwise a happy, predictable life. Uncertainty of the future can lead to fear and worry, and physical discomfort from treatment can seem endless. Cancer causes changes in body-image, work roles, and family roles, and suddenly someone who found their worth and value in these things may be left unstable and scared. Someone with cancer may struggle to see any hope ahead.

Because sadness and and anxiety are already associated with cancer, it can be hard to realize when you or a loved one is crossing into depression. Be aware that some are more at risk for depression than others. Risk factors include:

  • Previous mental health diagnosis
  • Family history of depression/anxiety
  • Little support from family and friends
  • Financial stress
Photo: AdobeStock/bestjeroen
Photo: AdobeStock/bestjeroen

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Remember that sadness and tears are normal and not unhealthy. But depression, while not uncommon in a cancer patient, affects someone’s quality of life on a deeper level and interferes with normal activities. Someone suffering may struggle with one or all of these signs of depression:

  • Emotional Signs: Feeling hopeless or worthless, feeling sad or “down” frequently, feeling numb, or being frequently irritable
  • Behavioral Signs: Lack of interest in previously-enjoyed activities or subjects, crying often, pulling away from friends and family, lack of motivation for simple tasks, sleeping too much or sleeplessness
  • Cognitive Signs: Difficulty concentrating, decreased decision-making capacity, forgetfulness, negative thoughts (especially about self-harm)
Photo: AdobeStock/hunna
Photo: AdobeStock/hunna

Again, sadness and negative thoughts are part of normal treatment, so it can be hard to tell when you or someone you’re caring for is slipping into depression. But the first step toward treatment is recognizing that there is a problem and asking for help. The American Cancer Society recommends reaching out to your cancer care team right away if you or someone you are caring for experiences one or more of the following symptoms:

  • Thoughts about suicide or self-harm
  • Inability to sleep or eat
  • Lack of interest in general activities for several days in a row
  • Inability to enjoy things they used to enjoy
  • Emotions that significantly interfere with daily activities for several days
  • Confusion
  • Trouble breathing
  • Excessive sweating
  • Extreme restlessness
Photo: AdobeStock/Syda Productions
Photo: AdobeStock/Syda Productions

What not to do when you or a loved one is facing depression

Depression is not like a cold where you can take a pill and wait for symptoms to go away while you watch Netflix. People may be ashamed to admit depression, even to themselves. But it can’t be overcome by just “snapping out of it” or putting on a happy face. In fact, forcing someone to be positive and ignore negative feelings does more harm than good. Avoid these well-meant but unhelpful actions:

  • Ignoring and suppressing feelings
  • Forcing yourself or a loved one to talk if they aren’t ready
  • Blaming yourself or another person for emotions
  • Recommending that you or a loved one “cheer up” or “just think positive”
  • Attempting to reason with a person going through severe depression. Depression makes it hard to think rationally
Photo: AdobeStock/EmeraldRaindrops
Photo: AdobeStock/EmeraldRaindrops

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