One of the biggest myths about cancer is that being depressed is an inevitable part of the disease. Not so, say the National Cancer Institute and the American Cancer Society. In fact, while it’s perfectly normal for people with cancer to experience some degree of sadness and grief, clinical depression strikes only about 25 percent of cancer patients.
The key to staying well—physically and emotionally—is recognizing the difference between “normal” degrees of sadness and a more serious, debilitating depression. Learning that you have cancer almost always produces feelings of loss and a sense of disbelief, denial or despair. These emotions may deepen if the cancer progresses or after treatment has ended.
When a particular kind of cancer or disfiguring treatment affects your identity or self-esteem, you’re likely to feel sad or depressed. For instance, losing your hair during chemotherapy can make you feel low. If you’re a woman, losing a breast may threaten your femininity. And if you’re a man, you may find the idea of prostate surgery unnerving.
What’s more, certain cancers—such as pancreatic or brain cancer—can actually cause depression to set in. And some cancer medications, such as chemotherapy drugs and antinausea remedies, can have a depressive effect. So it’s not always easy to tell if your depression is associated with the cancer itself or its treatment, if it’s a temporary emotional reaction or if it’s a sign of something more serious. Here’s a good rule of thumb: Seek professional help if your symptoms last longer than two weeks (see “You may be clinically depressed if …”).
The good news is that there are many ways to treat depression successfully. Therapy may include antidepressants, one-on-one counseling or a combination approach. Sometimes sharing your problems in a support group can ease your emotional burden. And remember, even though you may feel alone, you’re surrounded by others who love and care about you. Withdrawing from family and friends will only compound feelings of sadness and isolation.
Some people find that relaxation therapy, meditation or hypnosis help. And still others find solace in prayer or by talking to their clergymen. The most important thing to remember is that there is no reason to suffer. Prolonged depression can destroy the quality of your life and make it much more difficult—or impossible—to make sensible, educated decisions about your healthcare. But once the depression has lifted, so too will its debilitating symptoms. At that point, you can reclaim your life and enjoy each day to its fullest.