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How Cancer Patients can Deal with Major Depression

written by: renasherwood • edited by: Paul Arnold • updated: 11/25/2010

Cancer is bad enough to deal with, but many patients also develop major depression, too. Just as the cancer is receiving treatment, so should the depression.

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    According to the National Cancer Institute, up to 25% of all cancer patients will develop major depression because of their cancer. But the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) state that only half of patients suffering with both cancer and major depression get treatment for depression. This can lead to cancer patients committing suicide.

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    Cancer and Major Depression

    Major depression can happen at all stages of cancer, even if the cancer seems to be cured. It is a common misconception that developing major depression or suicidal thoughts during cancer treatment is just a normal symptom of cancer. It is not, according to NAMI. Any symptoms of major depression in a cancer patient should not be ignored by family, friends or hospital staff.

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    Daily Routine

    Patients with cancer and major depression often give up hope. Patients who do not believe they can be cured have more trouble recovering than patients who do have hope that they can be cured. NAMI recommends that all cancer patients be given a daily routine to follow so that they are distracted from depressive thinking and given reason to hope.

    Daily routines can range from waking up and going to bed at the same time, eating at the same times or being involved in some activity like reading or talking with other patients during the time they normally would be at work or at school. Family members of the patient should also be encouraged to keep that person on as close to a daily routine as possible.

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    Therapy and Medication

    A doctor or oncologist’s priority will be to lessen the physical pain of a cancer patient and to eradicate the tumors. But if a patient needs an antidepressant, that antidepressant cannot clash with other medications that are being administered. A doctor should never change the pain medication just to suit an antidepressant, according to “Treatment of Depression in Cancer Patients.” G. Rodin, MD, et al. “Current Oncology.” Oct. 2007.

    But antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac) do not work overnight. They can take weeks until positive effects are detected by the patient. In the meantime, the patient can benefit by being introduced to other cancer patients. Formal or informal group sessions where experiences can be shared of what it’s like to have cancer and major depression are of great benefit to some. In addition individual counseling or counseling with one or more family members can lessen symptoms of major depression.

    The National Cancer Institute notes that all cancer patients at any risk of suicide need to have good communication with caretakers like nurses, doctors or hospital staff. Cancer patients may feel isolated or a burden to others, but interaction with others can demonstrate that they are just as valued and loved as they always have been.

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    National Cancer Institute. “Depression.”

    National Cancer Institute. “Assessment, Evaluation and Management of Suicidal Patients.”

    “Treatment of Depression in Cancer Patients.” G. Rodin, MD, et al. “Current Oncology.” Oct. 2007.

    National Alliance on Mental Illness. “Depression and Chronic Illness Fact Sheet.”