Coping with depression

It is completely normal for people with cancer to feel very sad sometimes. But if a low mood continues or gets worse, this could be a sign of depression. Depression is a common condition that be caused by a number of things. It has many symptoms, which can make it difficult to recognise.

Depression is not a sign of personal failure or an inability to cope. Try not to blame yourself or feel guilty. It may not seem like it, but help is available. It is important to remember that depression is common, and that it can usually be treated successfully.

There are things you can do to help look after yourself. The first step to feeling better is finding appropriate help. There are both medical and non-medical approaches to managing depression.

Doctors sometimes prescribe anti-depressant medicines to help treat depression. Always follow your doctor’s advice when taking anti-depressants, or other medicines and remedies.

Sometimes, feelings of depression may get worse. You may feel like a burden, or that life isn’t worth living. If you are having suicidal thoughts or feelings, it is important to seek help. You can call Samaritans’ 24-hour confidential helpline on 116 123. Your doctor or psychiatrist will also be able to help.

Do I have depression?

When you have cancer, you may feel very sad at times. This may be at the time of diagnosis, or during or after treatment. This is completely normal and for most people these periods of sadness will pass. We also have some suggestions of positive things you can do that may help you feel better.

For some people, a low mood may continue or get worse. This may mean they have depression and need some extra help or treatment to be able to cope. Depression is common and can be triggered by different events or situations. People who have cancer or have had it in the past can be more likely to be diagnosed with depression. But it can also be related to things that have nothing to do with cancer.

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

Symptoms of depression can include:

  • having a very low mood most of the time
  • feeling tired or lacking in energy
  • not enjoying activities you used to
  • crying a lot, or feeling unable to cry
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • being unusually irritable or impatient
  • not wanting to see other people
  • waking up early, having difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • having little motivation to look after yourself
  • feeling less affectionate or having a loss of sexual desire
  • feeling guilty or worthless
  • feeling that the world would be better without you
  • having thoughts of harming yourself.

These are just some of the symptoms of depression. They will be different for each person. Some of these symptoms can also be caused by the cancer or its treatment. If you think you may have depression, talk to your doctor or nurse.

Cancer and depression

Alfie talks about coping with depression after his cancer diagnosis.

About our cancer information videos

Cancer and depression

Alfie talks about coping with depression after his cancer diagnosis.

About our cancer information videos

I woke up the next morning bawling my eyes out. I just wanted to get the feelings out of my system. I called my friend every night.

Lara


Dealing with depression

It can feel as though you will never recover from depression. But there are lots of things that can help you cope and there is a good chance your mood will improve. It is important to remember that depression is common. It is not a sign of personal failure or inability to cope, and there are people who can help you. The first step to feeling better is finding help.

Self-help techniques, talking therapies or medication can all help speed up your recovery. We discuss these below.

Self-care

Whether your feelings of depression are mild or severe, there are things you can do that may help, including:

It can be hard to find the energy and motivation to look after yourself when you have depression. Even small tasks may feel very difficult. They may feel impossible when you are also going through cancer treatment. Try to do one small thing at a time and celebrate your successes.

Getting help with depression

If you think you might have depression, speak to your doctor. They will want to speak to you about your feelings and work with you to find a solution.

They may:

  • give you a diagnosis, for example of 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
  • prescribe you medication (see below).

This may not happen at the first appointment. Your doctor may give you a questionnaire to fill in first. They will want to know how the depression developed, how it is affecting you, and any treatments you have tried so far. They are asking these questions so they can work out the best way to help you. Your doctor may also want to monitor you for a period of time before offering any diagnosis or treatment.

They will then be able to suggest ways of managing the depression, including talking therapies, medicines or a combination of both.

You might find it useful to read our information on getting help from healthcare professionals and other organisations.


Anti-depressant medicines

Some people will be prescribed an anti-depressant to help lift their mood. There are different types of anti-depressant. Your doctors may need to try more than one to find the type that suits you best. They take effect slowly, which means you may not notice much improvement in your symptoms 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 six months to help them through their depression. Anti-depressants are not addictive, but you should not stop taking them suddenly, as it can cause strong withdrawal symptoms. When stopping anti-depressants, it is important you follow your doctor’s advice.

Side effects

Like all other medicines, anti-depressants can have side effects. These are different for each medicine and individual. Ask your doctor to explain what side effects are possible. It is also important to read the leaflet that comes with the medicine. 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. Make sure you tell your doctor about any other health conditions you have or other medicines you are taking. Some anti-depressants can react with other medicines. Occasionally, anti-depressants can cause suicidal feelings, even if you have not had these feelings before. If you are worried about side effects, talk to your doctor or dial 999 in an emergency.

You can read more about anti-depressants on Mind's website.

St John’s wort

St John’s wort is a herbal treatment but it is not recommended. It can react with other medicines, including cancer treatments, making 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 overwhelming emotions that you don’t feel able to cope with. It can also be common for people who are very depressed to feel they are a burden to others and that their loved ones would be better off without them.

Often people who feel this way believe that no one will be able to 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
  • thoughts about hurting someone else
  • other symptoms you are worried about.

In some situations, your doctor may think it would be helpful for you to spend a few days in hospital. Specially trained staff can support you and help you feel better as quickly as possible. In some areas, specialist psychiatric support teams can visit you at home.

Samaritans has a 24-hour confidential helpline that provides support to anyone in emotional crisis. The phone number is 116 123. You can also get help by going to your local Accident and Emergency (A&E) department.

Back to Dealing with your emotions

Cancer and your feelings

There are lots of emotions to deal with when you have cancer. We can help you work through them.

Feeling alone

People with cancer often feel lonely or isolated. There are ways to manage these feelings.