When you have cancer, feeling sad at times is normal. For some people, a low mood may continue or get worse. This may mean they have depression.

Do I have depression?

When you have cancer, you may feel sad at times. This may be at diagnosis, or during or after treatment. This is normal and for most people these feelings of sadness go away.

For some people, a low mood may continue or get worse. This may mean they have depression and need help or treatment to be able to cope. Depression is common and can be caused by different things. It may be related to the cancer, or it may happen for other reasons.

It can be difficult to know whether you are sad and worried about the cancer, or whether you have depression. Sometimes people notice your symptoms and suggest that you might need help.

Symptoms of depression

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • feeling low in mood or sad most of the time
  • losing interest in things you used to enjoy, like your hobbies or social life
  • changes in sleeping, eating or concentration
  • feeling helpless or vulnerable
  • problems starting or finishing tasks
  • thinking about self-harm or suicide.

These are just some of the symptoms of depression. They will be different for each person. The cancer or its treatment can also cause some of these symptoms. You may need help even after your cancer treatment finishes.

Remember, it is normal to have some of these feelings at times. But if they go on for more than a couple of weeks, talk to your cancer doctor, GP or specialist nurse.

If you have any thoughts about self-harm or suicide, you should contact your cancer doctor, GP or specialist nurse straight away.

Coping with depression

It is important to remember that depression is common and that there are things that can help. There are many ways to cope and there are different types of support. What works for one person may not work as well for another. The first step to feeling better is getting help.

Self-care, talking therapies or medication can all help.

Getting help with depression

If you think you might have depression, speak to your GP. They can talk with you about your feelings and help you find ways to cope.

They may:

  • give you a diagnosis, for example depression or anxiety
  • refer you to another service, such as a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist
  • give you details of a talking therapy service you can contact yourself
  • talk to you about medication.

These things may not happen at the first appointment. Your doctor may give you a questionnaire to fill in first. They will want to know more about:

  • how you are feeling
  • how your feelings are affecting you
  • any treatments you have tried.

They ask these questions so they can work out the best way to help you.

Some people find that talking about their feelings can help. If you can, talk to your family, friends or partner about how you feel so they can support you. You can also try talking to someone who is going through similar experiences. This might be through a cancer support group or an online social networking site, such as our Online Community.

Anti-depressant medicines

Your doctor may prescribe an anti-depressant drug for you. There are different types of anti-depressant. Your doctors may need to try more than one to find that suits you best. You may not notice much improvement until at least 2 to 4 weeks after you start treatment. Your doctor will monitor how well they are working for you.

Most people need to take anti-depressants for at least 6 months to help them through their depression. Anti-depressants are not addictive, but you should not stop taking them suddenly as it can cause symptoms called withdrawal symptoms. When you stop taking anti-depressants, it is important to follow your doctor's advice.

Side effects

Like all other drugs, anti-depressants can cause side effects. These are different for each drug and for each person. Ask your doctor to explain what the possible effects are. You can also read the leaflet that comes with the anti-depressant. This will tell you what to expect. Tell your doctor about any side effects you have.

It is important to follow your doctor’s instructions when taking anti-depressants. Tell them about any other health conditions you have or other medicines you are taking. Some anti-depressants can react with other medicines. Rarely, anti-depressants can cause suicidal feelings. If you are worried, talk to your doctor.

Mind has more information about anti-depressants.

St Johns wort

St John's wort is a herbal treatment. But it is not recommended that you take it. It can react with other medicines, including cancer treatments. This can make them less effective. If you are thinking of taking St John's wort, it is important to speak to your doctor first.

Suicidal feelings

Suicidal feelings can be a reaction to emotions that you feel you cannot cope with. Some people who are very depressed feel they are a burden to other people. They may feel that their loved ones would be better off without them.

Often people who feel this way believe that no one can help them. This is not true.

It is very important to talk to someone. This could be your doctor, someone in your healthcare team, your therapist or a helpline. They can arrange specialist help for you.

Talk to someone if you have:

  • thoughts about hurting yourself
  • thoughts about killing yourself
  • other symptoms you are worried about.

Specialist nurses and doctors can support you and help you feel better as quickly as possible. In some areas, specialist psychiatric support teams can visit you at home. If you cannot contact anyone or get help, go to your local Accident and Emergency department (A&E).

Samaritans has a 24-hour confidential helpline that provides support. The phone number is 116 123.

How we can help

Macmillan Cancer Support Line
The Macmillan Support Line offers confidential support to people living with cancer and their loved ones. If you need to talk, we'll listen.
Macmillan Telephone Buddies
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0808 808 00 00
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Online Community
An anonymous network of people affected by cancer which is free to join. Share experiences, ask questions and talk to people who understand.
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What's going on near you? Find out about support groups, where to get information and how to get involved with Macmillan where you live.