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Depression (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 02/12/2014

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General Information About Depression



Depression is different from normal sadness.

Depression is not simply feeling sad. Depression is a disorder with specific symptoms that can be diagnosed and treated. About one-fourth of cancer patients become depressed. The numbers of men and women affected are about the same.

A person diagnosed with cancer faces many stressful issues. These may include:

  • Fear of death.
  • Changes in life plans.
  • Changes in body image and self-esteem.
  • Changes in day to day living.
  • Money and legal concerns.

Sadness and grief are normal reactions to a cancer diagnosis. A person with cancer may also have:

  • Feelings of disbelief, denial, or despair.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Anxiety or worry about the future.

Not everyone who is diagnosed with cancer reacts in the same way. Some cancer patients may not have depression or anxiety, while others may have high levels of both.

Signs that you have adjusted to the cancer diagnosis and treatment include being able to stay active in daily life and continue in your roles such as:

  • Spouse.
  • Parent.
  • Employee.

This summary is mainly about depression in adults with cancer. There is a section at the end of the summary about depression in children with cancer.

Some cancer patients may have a higher risk of depression.

There are known risk factors for depression after a cancer diagnosis. Factors that increase the risk of depression are not always related to the cancer.

Risk factors related to cancer

Risk factors related to cancer that may cause depression include the following:

Risk factors not related to cancer

Risk factors not related to cancer that may cause depression include the following:

There are many medical conditions that can cause depression.

Medical conditions that may cause depression include the following:

Depression and anxiety are common in patients whose cancer is advanced and can no longer be treated.

Patients whose cancer can no longer be treated often feel depressed and anxious. These feelings can lower the quality of life. Terminally ill patients who are depressed report being troubled about:

  • Symptoms.
  • Relationships.
  • Beliefs about life.

Depressed terminally ill patients feel they are "being a burden" even when they don't depend very much on others.

Family members also have a risk of depression.

Anxiety and depression are also common in family members caring for loved ones with cancer. Children are affected when a parent with cancer is depressed and may have emotional and behavioral problems themselves.

Good communication helps. Family members who talk about feelings and solve problems are more likely to have lower levels of anxiety and depression.