Cancer and Depression

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Many people who have cancer go through a period of depression. It can happen during treatment or many months or even years later. What especially concerns me is that many cancer patients who are depressed never report their depression to their doctors.

There are many phrases that people use to describe depression: a lack of energy, not enjoying what one used to enjoy, not wanting to get out of bed.

The obvious reason for treating depression is that most people benefit from it. They feel better with medication and/or talk therapy. It improves their quality of life, not to mention the quality of the lives of those around them.

A less obvious reason, but one that is critically important for those with cancer, is that people who are depressed tend to be poor decision-makers. Sometimes they make decisions they wouldn’t have made had they been more clear-headed. Other times, they can’t seem to decide anything and find themselves spinning in circles.

Everyone with cancer has decisions to make. Should the cancer be treated? Which kind of treatment makes the most sense? Where should they go for treatment? Making these decisions when depressed is difficult.

If a patient tells me that they’re depressed, I always ask if they’ve told this to their physician. Quite often, the answer is no. They may feel that depression is “normal” given a cancer diagnosis. Or they feel that they can tough it out. Some say that they don’t want to take any more pills.

I respond by saying that depression after a cancer diagnosis is common, but that doesn’t make it normal. At the very least, patients should discuss their emotional well-being with their oncologist or primary care physician. Many people need treatment for only a few months in order to adjust to the changes that accompany a serious illness. And not treating the depression may be a reasonable approach for some people, but this decision should be made in consultation with one’s physician.

Depression is also closely associated with anxiety which independently affects people’s ability to make clear and thoughtful decisions. Treating depression often helps the anxiety and vice-versa.

Getting emotional help following a cancer diagnosis is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. Cancer often causes people to feel like their lives are out of control. Seeking treatment for depression and anxiety is an important first step in regaining that control.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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