1 in 4 people with cancer also experiences depression. Here’s how to spot the signs in yourself or a loved one — and what to do about it.

Regardless of your age, stage of life, or circumstances, a cancer diagnosis often changes your outlook on life, and your approach to health and wellness.

Living with cancer can bring with it an overwhelming shift in physical, emotional, and mental well-being. A cancer diagnosis impacts the body in ways that are negative, difficult, and often painful.

The same can also apply to cancer treatments and therapies — whether surgery, chemo, or hormone replacement — which can bring on additional symptoms of weakness, fatigue, clouded thinking, or nausea.

As someone with cancer works to manage the significant impact that the disease and treatment has on their body, they’re also confronted with the potential impact on their mental well-being.

Cancer carries an enormous amount of emotional weight, and sometimes manifests through fear, anxiety, and stress.

These emotions and feelings may start small and manageable, but as time passes, can become more consuming and complicated to cope with — eventually leading in some cases to clinical depression.

Here’s how to spot the signs of depression and anxiety, and what to do when you see them in yourself or a loved one.

Depression and cancer

Depression is quite common in people living with cancer. According to the American Cancer Society, about 1 out of 4 people with cancer have clinical depression.

Symptoms may include:

  • feelings of sadness, emptiness, or hopelessness
  • loss of interest or pleasure in things
  • trouble thinking or concentrating
  • high levels of fatigue, tiredness, and exhaustion
  • slowed thinking, movements, or speaking
  • nausea, stomach pains, or digestive problems
  • changes in mood, including agitation or restlessness
  • sleep disturbances, including insomnia or oversleeping

This list of depression symptoms may overlap with the side effects of cancer and cancer treatments.

It should be noted that depression is generally longer lasting, more intense, and more pervasive than temporary feelings of sadness. If these feelings are present for more than two weeks, it could be likely that you, or a loved one with cancer, may be experiencing depression.

Suicide prevention

  1. If you think someone is at immediate risk of self-harm or hurting another person:
  2. •  Call 911 or your local emergency number.
  3. •  Stay with the person until help arrives.
  4. •  Remove any guns, knives, medications, or other things that may cause harm.
  5. •  Listen, but don’t judge, argue, threaten, or yell.
  6. If you or someone you know is considering suicide, get help from a crisis or suicide prevention hotline. Try the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.
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Anxiety and cancer

Anxiety can also manifest in people with cancer, and may present as mild, moderate, intense, or variations in between.

Common anxiety symptoms can include:

  • excessive and intensive worrying
  • feelings of restlessness and irritability
  • difficulties with concentrating or focusing
  • being physically tense and unable to feel at ease

Individuals living with cancer may spend considerable amounts of time worrying about their future, family, career, or finances. This anxiety may consume numerous aspects of their life and lessen their ability to function.

Intense periods of anxiety can develop into panic attacks. Panic attacks are periods of high anxiety that usually last for less than 10 minutes (although some people report that their panic attacks last longer).

Signs of a panic attack may include:

  • an increased heartrate
  • shortness of breath
  • feelings of numbness, dizziness, and lightheadedness
  • hot flashes or cold sweats

Tips for coping with cancer, anxiety, and depression

For someone who’s already battling cancer, the added challenge of facing depression or anxiety can seem daunting. Paying attention to your mental health will leave you with more resources to care for your physical health as well.

When beginning the process of managing your mental health, it’s important to avoid negative coping skills, be honest and open with those around you, and seek help.

What not to do:

  • Don’t avoid the issue and hope it will go away. Higher levels of anxiety rarely alleviate without confronting the problem at hand.
  • Don’t mislead others by telling them you’re fine. It’s not fair to yourself or to them. It’s okay to speak up and let others know you aren’t fine.
  • Don’t rely on alcohol or other substances to reduce depression and anxiety. Self-medication will most likely not improve symptoms, and can even add more problems.

What to do:

  • Accept your feelings and behaviors. What you’re feeling, thinking, or doing isn’t wrong. Being diagnosed with cancer can be a difficult time for anyone. Take a step back to observe and accept these feelings before you try to change them.
  • Talk to loved ones or a therapist about your thoughts and feelings. Dealing with depression and anxiety can be overwhelming to deal with by yourself. Talking to those you trust will help you process, accept, or even validate your feelings and provide you with ways to cope.
  • Concentrate on your physical health. When health begins to break down, some people stop tending to their physical needs out of frustration. However, now is the time to be eating well, getting enough rest, and exercising to the best of your ability during your diagnosis and treatment.

Cancer affects physical and mental health.

By understanding the overall impact, recognizing that you aren’t alone, and getting access to help and support, you can battle cancer on both fronts.

NewLifeOutlook aims to empower people living with chronic mental and physical health conditions, encouraging them to embrace a positive outlook. Their articles offer practical advice from people who have firsthand experience with chronic conditions.