Cancer and Depression


Depression and Cancer

A diagnosis of cancer can be frightening and overwhelming and it is common for people to experience a range of intense emotions. Most people experience some low mood and sadness after a cancer diagnosis, but if this low mood continues for weeks or interferes with your daily functioning it might be depression.

People with cancer, as well as their family and friends, can experience depression at any point throughout the cancer experience; after a cancer diagnosis, whilst going through treatment, once treatment has finished or even many years after the cancer has been treated.

Depression is a common condition that can have a broad range of symptoms.

Symptoms of Clinical Depression

  • Depressed mood or feeling “empty” for most of the day
  • Loss of interest or enjoyment in activities that you usually enjoy
  • Weight loss or weight due to appetite changes (not associated with treatment)
  • Feeling slowed down or restless and agitated almost every day,
  • Extreme tiredness (fatigue) or loss of energy (not caused by cancer treatments).
  • Changes in sleeping (sleeping too much, too little or increased sleep disturbance)
  • Feeling guilty, worthless or hopeless
  • Loss of sex drive
  • Feeling physically heavy and lacking motivation
  • Difficulty focusing or making decisions that used to be easy
  • Feeling like your thinking is slowed
  • Thoughts of death or suicide

Some of these symptoms, such as weight changes, changes in sleep patterns, fatigue, or even memory and concentration difficulties can be caused by the cancer or cancer treatment. However, if you experience 5 or more of these symptoms, most days, for 2 weeks or more, or if your symptoms are interfering with your ability to engage in your normal activities, you might be experiencing depression. If you or a loved one attempts self-harm, or has a plan to do so, it is important to get help immediately.

Depression is more than feeling sad. The symptoms must:

  • last at least two weeks for a diagnosis of depression
  • Not be due to a medical condition (e.g. head injury as that is another form of depression)

How common is it?

  • Depression affects up to 20% of patients with cancer

Causes and risk factors

Risk factors related to cancer that may cause depression include:

  • Being diagnosed with advanced canceror a poor prognosis.
  • Being diagnosed with cancer when you are already depressed.
  • Experiencing cancer pain that is not well managed.
  • Experiencing poor physical functioning associated with the cancer.
  • Havingpancreatic or lung cancer.Pancreatic and lung cancer, can release chemicals that are thought to be associated with depression.
  • Some cancer treatments, such as corticosteroids and some chemotherapy medications, are associated with higher rates of depression.
  • Having little or no support from family or friends.

Family members and friends who are caring for loved ones with cancer are also at higher risk of depression.


Most people with depression benefit from one, or a combination of, lifestyle changes, social support, psychological therapies and medical treatments. Mindfulness-based Cognitive therapy has also been found to be effective in the treatment of depression in cancer patients and involves the acceptance of unwanted thoughts in a non-judgemental manner to decrease mood difficulties and cope better with the uncertainty that often arises from a cancer diagnosis.

Important Note

It is important to be aware that some antidepressant medication can worsen existing cancer symptoms and interact with chemotherapy agents. It is therefore necessary to discuss all medications with your treating team.



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