Coping with depression

Depression is a common condition that can develop either gradually or overnight. Many people who have depression feel low most of the time. But this condition 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. The first step to feeling better is finding appropriate help. There are both medical and non-medical approaches to managing depression.

Doctors sometimes prescribe antidepressant medicine to help treat depression. Always follow your doctor’s advice when taking antidepressants, 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 you can call the Samaritans’ 24-hour confidential helpline. Your doctor or psychiatrist will also be able to help.

What is depression?

When you have been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel very low at times. This may be at the time of diagnosis, or during or after treatment. For some people, their low mood may continue or get worse, and they may need professional help or treatment.

Sometimes, it can be difficult to know whether you’re depressed or not. It may be other people who notice symptoms and suggest that you might need help.

Depression is a common condition that affects around 1 in 10 people (10%). It can be triggered by a variety of difficult events, including a cancer diagnosis or having treatment for cancer. However, it can also happen by chance or be related to other events that have nothing to do with cancer.

Symptoms of depression include:

  • having a very low mood most of the time
  • feeling fatigued or lacking in energy
  • getting no pleasure out of life or activities you usually enjoy
  • crying a lot, or feeling unable to cry
  • having difficulty concentrating or making decisions
  • being unusually irritable or impatient
  • waking up early, having difficulty sleeping, or sleeping more than usual
  • feeling less affectionate or having a loss of sexual desire
  • hallucinations or hearing voices (although this is rare).

These are just some of the symptoms of depression, but they will be different for each person. If you have other symptoms but think you may be depressed, 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

Can anyone develop depression?

Some people are more likely to develop depression than others. These include people who:

  • have had depression before
  • have a family member who has suffered from depression
  • have no one to discuss things with (so it can help to talk about how you feel with your cancer team at an early stage)
  • have a lot of other concerns or difficulties to deal with at the same time as they are coping with cancer
  • are being treated with certain drugs that may cause depression in some people.

Dealing with depression

The relationship between cancer and depression is complicated.

A diagnosis of cancer often involves some sort of loss, for example the loss of future plans or a loss of income. It is natural and healthy to feel low for a time as a result of loss.

Depression is not a sign of personal failure or an inability to cope. There is no need for you to feel guilty about feeling depressed or not feeling positive all the time. It is important to remember that depression is common, and that it can usually be treated successfully. The first step to feeling better is finding appropriate help.

There are things you can do to help yourself. But if you think you need professional help, speak to your doctor or nurse. They may refer you to a specialist or prescribe medication.

There are also organisations that can help people with depression.

Although it may feel like it’s unlikely you will recover from depression, remember that it won’t continue forever. Even if you have no treatment, there’s a good chance that eventually your mood will improve. Self-help techniques, talking therapies or antidepressant medication can all help speed up your recovery.

Getting professional help

Your doctor might want to refer you to see a psychiatrist or clinical psychologist. These are people with special expertise in helping people who are depressed. They will want to know how the depression developed, how it is affecting you, and any treatments you have tried so far. They will then be able to suggest other ways of managing the depression, possibly including medicines. You may need several visits, or after your first visit they may recommend that you see another member of the team instead, such as a counsellor.

Antidepressant medicines

Some people will be prescribed an antidepressant to help lift their mood.

There are different types of antidepressant, and your doctors may need to try more than one to find the type that suits you best. They take effect slowly, which means you will not usually notice much improvement in your symptoms until at least 2–4 weeks after you start treatment.

Most people need to take antidepressants for at least six months to help them through their depression. Antidepressants are not addictive, but if you stop taking them suddenly, it may cause unpleasant symptoms. When stopping antidepressants, it is important you follow your doctor’s advice and don’t stop taking them suddenly.

Like all other medicines, antidepressants have side effects. However, these are usually mild. They tend to be more of a problem during the first few weeks of treatment. The side effects of antidepressants include a dry mouth, drowsiness, feeling sick (nausea), sleeplessness, headaches and sometimes sexual problems. These side effects generally improve with time.

If your side effects are particularly troublesome, let your doctor know.

St John’s wort

St John’s wort is a herbal treatment. Some research has shown that it may help people with mild or moderate depression.

It is generally not recommended for people with cancer or other long-term physical health problems. This is partly because 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

If your quality of life has been affected by your cancer or its treatment, you may be feeling extremely depressed or hopeless. Some people may feel that life is not worth living and may think about killing themselves. It is common for people who are very depressed to feel they are a burden to others and that their family 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 your doctor so they can arrange specialist help for you.

If you have any of the following symptoms, you need to seek help:

  • Suicidal thoughts or plans.
  • Hearing voices (hallucinations).
  • Thoughts about self-harm.

In some situations, your doctor may suggest you spend a few days in hospital, where 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 08457 90 90 90.

Back to Dealing with your emotions

Cancer and your feelings

There is no right way to feel after a cancer diagnosis. You are likely to feel many different emotions.

What you can do

Take each day at a time. There are many different ways to manage your feelings.