Depression after Cancer: What you Need to Know, and How to Get Help

If you’ve been battling cancer, getting the news that you’re cancer-free comes with a whole world of emotions. Most likely, you’ll feel relieved and grateful that your cancer treatment is over. However, you could experience some negative emotions, too. You may feel anxious, isolated, or depressed.

It might sound strange to hear that you could feel depressed after the end of your battle with cancer. But, about 18-20% of adults with cancer experience depression after cancer. In this article, we’ll provide information on the symptoms of depression, tips to help you cope, and ways to find support.

What are the signs and symptoms of depression?

Depression symptoms can vary from person to person, and your likelihood of having depression after cancer depends on several factors. Those who have survived lung and brain cancer appear to be the most likely to experience anxiety and depression, but you can feel depressed after a battle with any kind of cancer. 

Here are some typical symptoms of depression:

  • Low energy, fatigue and sleep disturbance

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Irritability and anger

  • Joint pain and achy muscles

  • Emotions like dread, gloom, misery, and despair

  • Increased or decreased appetite

  • Digestive problems

  • Feelings of apathy, hopelessness, worthlessness, or helplessness

  • Loss of interest in activities you used to enjoy

What causes depression after cancer?

As a cancer survivor, your experience is unique. However, there are some factors and situations that are common. For example, you may fear that your cancer might come back. You may also worry about money, especially with the cost of treatments like chemotherapy and radiation. 

Cancer also comes with many life changes. Due to pain and limited ability, you might have had to step back from work, hobbies, and other responsibilities. This can result in feelings of self-blame and embarrassment. 

You might be grappling with changes in your identity. For a length of time, your life involved a huge number of medical appointments, visits for cancer treatment, and endless medicine doses. Although it’s a relief to no longer have to structure your routine around an intense level of medical care, it’s impossible to return to “normal” life. Things can’t go back to the exact way they were before your cancer diagnosis. This could cause you to feel grief for your old life.

When your cancer treatment ends, your level of support may decrease, too. During your cancer treatment, you might have had lots of help from family, friends, and your community. This support may have included meals delivered to your home, assistance with cleaning your house, or company on trips to medical appointments. Now that you’re cancer-free, there’s a good chance that has ended. You may not be immediately able to take on more responsibilities at home. You might not feel ready for less frequent medical visits. It could feel unfair, especially if you’re still dealing with medical challenges despite being cancer-free. This could leave you feeling isolated and lonely.

What can happen if you don’t manage your depression?

Unfortunately, avoiding care for your depression can lower your lifespan. Those with depression have higher inflammatory markers. These inflammatory markers often predict cancer recurrence in cancer survivors.This suggests that depression can make it more likely that your cancer comes back. You may also experience more pain if you have depression. Having depression also negatively affects your overall quality of life. 

In general, depression puts you at a greater risk of having other mental problems like anxiety and Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). You may also be at a higher risk of high blood pressure, metabolic disorders like diabetes, and other problems like sleep disorders and migraines.

What can you do if you have depression after cancer?

Use mental health support services

For some, admitting to needing professional help comes with guilt and shame. While the thought of mental health care could make you feel anxious or uncertain, getting professional support for your depression ensures that you do not suffer alone. Mental health services and mental health care providers are a normal and important part of your health care team. If you're struggling to manage your mental health on your own, it's important to explore all options. Mental health care could include receiving medication for your depression, or going to therapy, or both. Everyone’s needs are different, and your care providers will work with you to meet your needs.

It’s especially important to seek professional help if you are experiencing the following symptoms:

  • Reduced quality of life

  • Trouble with daily responsibilities as a result of your depression

  • Thoughts of hurting yourself or others

  • Frequent thoughts about death or dying

If you are currently experiencing a mental health crisis, you can call 988 to reach the Suicide and Crisis Lifeline to receive immediate emotional support.

Join a Support Group

Support groups give you the opportunity to share and process your personal experiences with people who are in a similar situation. This can be validating if you feel those around you don’t understand what you’re going through. You may also experience loneliness or isolation after your cancer diagnosis. A support group may be especially helpful if your level of emotional support has been reduced since the end of your cancer treatment. The American Cancer Society can help you find a cancer support group in your area.

Ask for help

You may not be ready to resume all of your normal responsibilities. Ask your family, friends, and loved ones for more support during your recovery from cancer. Be specific about what kind of help you need. Think about the things that are the most taxing for you. Maybe you could use help with cooking meals. Or, you don’t have the energy to take your dog on walks. Get help with these tasks. You may also want to consider services like cleaning, meal delivery, and pet care to ease your burden. While paying for these services could feel like a luxury, they may save your physical and mental health. 

Get moving

Exercise is a great way to improve your mental health. Doctors and mental health professionals often encourage their patients to get exercise in addition to traditional forms of mental health care, like therapy and medication. Be sure to ask your doctor if you’re cleared for exercise. Your treatment may have been hard on your body and you may have some physical limitations. You might need to exercise at a slower pace and for shorter periods of time. Try to find activities that are enjoyable for you and make them part of your weekly routine.

Be mindful

Practices like mindfulness and meditation can help your depression. Mindfulness involves being aware of your emotions and the present moment. Meditation involves focusing your mind using a specific practice or technique. They usually go together - you reach a state of mindfulness through meditation. 

Meditation and mindfulness help with depression by helping you pay attention to your thoughts without judging or criticizing them. This can create feelings of acceptance, allowing you to let go of negative thoughts. Studies have shown that meditation lowers inflammation in cancer patients, which can increase your likelihood of survival, and improve your overall wellbeing. 

While many believe meditation involves completely clearing the mind, it isn’t always the case. There are many different ways to meditate. Some involve focusing on your body or breathing. Others involve thinking about your emotions or experiences. You may even work on visualizing a relaxing location or activity.

Meditation gets easier with time. You may not feel better after your first meditation session, and you may have to repeat the practice often before you get the hang of it. Just like other skills, practice makes perfect. It’s okay to start small, and work up to a longer meditation practice.

Adopt a Mediterranean Diet

Your depression could make you more likely to eat unhealthy foods. Unhealthy foods may also make your depression symptoms worse. Those who eat a Mediterranean Diet full of fruits and veggies, whole grains, and lean meats are less likely to experience depression. Eating a healthy diet can lower your symptoms of depression as well.

Your depression symptoms may include a lack of motivation. This makes it particularly challenging to eat well and change your habits. It’s important to focus on small, realistic changes when you feel this way. Try to include some healthy food choices that you enjoy and are easy to prepare.

Related article: Life After Cancer

I’m overwhelmed by my feelings of depression after my cancer, and I need help.

Finding ways to manage your depression after cancer may feel complicated and overwhelming. Goodpath can help. Our research-backed programs take an integrative, whole-body approach to your symptoms.

This means you have solutions for the physical aspects of your depression, like digestive problems, neck tension, and trouble sleeping. Goodpath includes mental wellbeing as part of every treatment plan.

Your program will be tailored to your individual needs, and you’ll have guidance from a health coach along the way to help you make changes to improve symptoms and lower stress.