In English | En español
Questions About Cancer? 1-800-4-CANCER

Depression (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 02/12/2014

Page Options

  • Print This Page
  • Print This Document
  • View Entire Document
  • Email This Document

Diagnosis of Depression



Major depression has specific symptoms that last longer than two weeks.

It's normal to feel sad after learning you have cancer, but a diagnosis of depression depends on more than being unhappy. Symptoms of depression include the following:

  • Feeling sad most of the time.
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in activities you used to enjoy.
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Nervousness.
  • Slow physical and mental responses.
  • Unexplained tiredness.
  • Feeling worthless.
  • Feeling guilt for no reason.
  • Not being able to pay attention.
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide.

Your doctor will talk with you to find out if you have symptoms of depression.

Your doctor wants to know how you are feeling and may want to discuss the following:

  • The normal feelings cancer patients have. Talking with your doctor about this may help you see if your feelings are normal sadness or more serious.
  • Your moods. You may be asked to rate your mood on a scale.
  • How long the symptoms have lasted.
  • How the symptoms affect your daily life, such as your relationships, your work, and your ability to enjoy your usual activities.
  • All the medicines you are taking and other treatments you are receiving. Sometimes, side effects of medicines or the cancer can look like symptoms of depression. This is more likely during active cancer treatment or advanced cancer.

This information will help you and your doctor find out if you are feeling normal sadness or have a depressive disorder.

Checking for depression may be repeated at times when stress increases, such as when cancer gets worse or comes back after treatment.

Physical exams, mental exams, and lab tests are used to diagnose depression.

In addition to talking with you, your doctor may do the following to check for depression:

  • Physical exam and history: An exam of the body to check general signs of health, including checking for signs of disease, such as lumps or anything else that seems unusual. A history of your health habits, past illnesses including depression, and treatments will also be taken. A physical exam can help rule out a physical condition that may be causing your symptoms.
  • Laboratory tests: Medical procedures that test samples of tissue, blood, urine, or other substances in the body. These tests help to diagnose disease, plan and check treatment, or monitor the disease over time. Lab tests are done to rule out a medical condition that may be causing symptoms of depression.
  • Mental status exam: An exam done to get a general idea of your mental state by checking the following:
    • How you look and act.
    • Your mood.
    • Your speech.
    • Your memory.
    • How well you pay attention and understand simple concepts.