Receiving a cancer diagnosis is shocking and frightening, and, understandably, can easily leave one feeling depressed.
Depression and anxiety seem to be natural reactions to a cancer diagnosis and can also be the result of various cancer treatments, including chemotherapy, radiation, surgery and medications.
- Worry about the unknown future
- Feel bad that you are not able to fulfill your regular role in the family or at work
- Stress about family finances if you are unable to work during treatment
- Feel a loss of control over life events
- Struggle after treatment or surgery with negative feelings about your body image
It's what someone with cancer chooses to do with those feelings that can determine the effects of depression, according to Laura Drury, MSW, LICSW, clinical director of Social Services at Butler Hospital and a breast cancer survivor.
"When first diagnosed with cancer, you can't help but fear that it may be a death sentence," she says simply. "It is a challenge to both accept and manage the myriad of feelings you experience when you have cancer. Cultivating a positive attitude is difficult but very important.
"You're going to have good days and bad days; days when you feel on top of it and days when you don't. (You have to) just take one day at a time....and sometimes one hour at a time."
This is important since research has shown that depression resulting from a diagnosis of cancer can negatively impact health outcomes and your quality of life during treatment.
Lift your spirits
Drury urged cancer patients to be gentle with themselves but also try different ways to work through the depression. Through her personal experience as a patient, she found that taking control of the things she could control, like her medical care, helped.
"I became knowledgeable about breast cancer and did extensive research to find a cancer institute and physician who specialized in treating breast cancer," she says, adding that she also chose exercise as a way to stave off depression. "I was using my Nordic Track like crazy, feeling, again, that I was going to do everything I could for my health. The first few months I felt strong and very positive about my prognosis. As my treatments continued, the cumulative effects of the chemotherapy and radiation resulted in my losing energy and stamina. At that point, I needed to listen to my body and rest."
Instead of exercise, Drury started reading spiritual books, spent time walking around the backyard with her German Shepherd to get some fresh air, and connected with other women who had breast cancer for support.
"There is something special about interacting with someone who lives it first-hand and who is having similar experiences," she says. "You don't have to explain anything. There is a 'knowing' that goes beyond words. They understand. The connection is automatic."
Sometimes, none of these solutions seem to help lift feelings of depression. If that's the case, speak to a member of your cancer care team for suggestions. Do not try to put up a brave front and keep your depression and anxiety inside. If your oncologist suggests an appointment with a mental health professional, make it.
The good news is that depression and anxiety related to another major health issue are identified and treated early, both quality of life and treatment outcomes improve. If you think you may be depressed or suffering from anxiety, a good place to start is by talking about it with your primary care physician and oncologist. If you are unsure how much your mood is being affected, you can also take Butler Hospital's free, confidential online depression screening.