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Depression & Breast Cancer: What You Don't Know Can Hurt You

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Rarely talked about by patients, doctors, or worried family members, clinical depression in cancer patients is common, but it can and should be treated. Clinical depression in women diagnosed with breast cancer is not surprising, since a diagnosis of breast cancer can suddenly and severely change a woman’s life and the lives of those close to her.

Clinical depression should not be confused with the normal feelings caused by a diagnosis of cancer. People with cancer and their families and friends should be aware of the symptoms of clinical depression, its causes, and why it’s important to have it treated.

What is clinical depression?

Clinical depression is hard to define because at first, symptoms occur as normal feelings, such as emotional upset, sadness, anxiety, poor concentration, and withdrawal. These are all quite natural after a cancer diagnosis. The patient’s mind is overwhelmed with new medical information, family and work concerns, insurance details, and thoughts of life and death.

However, there are some specific symptoms of clinical depression to watch out for: persistent sadness; loss of interest or pleasure in everyday activities; irritability or excessive crying; sleeping or eating disturbances; chronic aches and pains; a major weight change; decreased energy and extreme tiredness; feeling guilty, worthless, or helpless; and thoughts of death and suicide.

These symptoms may vary in severity and duration. If you have five or more of these symptoms and they last for more than two weeks, a clinical evaluation for depression is a good idea.

What are the underlying causes of depression?

A diagnosis of cancer creates many concerns. Women with cancer commonly mention concerns about what the future holds; fears about medical costs; fears for the future of their family; and worries about how they look, especially after surgery. These issues should not be minimized; indeed, they are some of the largest issues a woman will face in her lifetime. If ignored, these worries can grow into symptoms of depression.

Many factors can cause serious depression. For example, research shows that the more severe the condition is perceived to be, the more likely it is that a person will experience clinical depression. A woman newly diagnosed with cancer may not be depressed about body image changes because she may not anticipate how much treatment will change her body. However, concern may arise later, after treatment. A history of depressive illness, social isolation, or financial problems also puts a person at greater risk for clinical depression.

Why should depression be treated?

Untreated depression is dangerous. It causes great distress, impairs normal daily functioning, and can even interfere with the ability to follow medical treatment. Fortunately, depression is very treatable – most depressed people improve, usually within a few weeks of starting treatment with drug therapy and possibly, psychological counseling. Sharing one’s concerns in a support group can also be very helpful.

There are many benefits to treating depression. Proper diagnosis and treatment of depression in people with cancer may improve their medical status, give them a better overall quality of life, reduce their pain, and improve treatment compliance.

Unfortunately, health care professionals and patients may overlook clinical depression for several reasons. For example, sometimes symptoms of clinical depression are misread as a normal reaction to diagnosis, or they are attributed to the disease itself, or they might be viewed as a side effect of treatment.

There’s no one time during the cancer experience when depression "normally" occurs. Cancer diagnosis and treatment is a series of ups and downs that may cause acute depression at any time or build to a depressive state. But keep in mind that depression is common and it’s treatable. If you, or someone you are close to, is suffering from persistent depression, seek treatment for it. It could make a huge difference.

You can get more information on cancer and depression from the American Cancer Society National Cancer Information Center by calling 1-800-227-2345.

Para solicitar información en español, llame al 1-800-227-2345. Un especialista en información sobre el cáncer le asistirá en español.

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