To make a diagnosis of depression, the clinician should confirm that these symptoms will have lasted a minimum of 2 weeks and are present on most days. The diagnosis of depression in people with cancer can be difficult due to the problems inherent in distinguishing biological or physical symptoms of depression from symptoms of illness or toxic side effects of treatment. This is particularly true of individuals who are receiving active treatment or those with advanced disease. Cognitive symptoms such as guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, and loss of pleasure in activities are probably the most useful in diagnosing depression in people with cancer. One German study comparing cancer patients who had a current affective disorder with those who had a single depressive symptom found loss of interest, followed by depressed mood, to yield the highest power of discrimination between the two groups on multivariate analysis.
The evaluation of depression in people with cancer should also include a careful assessment of the person's perception of the illness, medical history, personal or family history of depression or thoughts of suicide, current mental status, and physical status, as well as treatment and disease effects, concurrent life stressors, and availability of social supports. It is important to understand that more than 90% of patients indicate that they prefer to discuss emotional issues with their physician, but over one quarter of patients feel that the physician must initiate any discussion of that topic. Suicidal ideation, when it occurs, is frightening for the individual, the health professional, and the family. Suicidal statements may range from an offhand comment resulting from frustration or disgust with a treatment course: "If I have to have one more bone marrow aspiration this year, I'll jump out the window," to a reflection of significant despair and an emergent situation: "I can no longer bear what this disease is doing to all of us, and I am going to kill myself." Exploring the seriousness of the thoughts is imperative. If the suicidal thoughts are believed to be serious, a referral to a psychiatrist or psychologist should be made immediately and attention should be given to the patient's safety. Additional information on suicide can be found in the Suicide Risk in Cancer Patients section.
The most common form of depressive symptomatology in people with cancer is an adjustment disorder with depressed mood, sometimes referred to as reactive depression. This disorder is manifested when a person has a dysphoric mood that is accompanied by the inability to perform usual activities.[Level of evidence: II] The symptoms appear to be prolonged and in excess of a normal and expected reaction but do not meet the criteria for a major depressive episode. When these symptoms significantly interfere with a person's daily functioning, such as attending to work or school activities, shopping, or caring for a household, they should be treated in the same way that major depression is treated (i.e., consider using crisis intervention, supportive psychotherapy, and medication, especially with drugs that quickly relieve distressing symptoms). Basing the diagnosis on these symptoms can be problematic when the individual has advanced disease and the illness itself is undermining functioning. It is also important to distinguish between fatigue and depression, which are often interrelated. The different mechanisms that give rise to these conditions can be treated separately. In more advanced illness, focusing on despair, guilty thoughts, and a total lack of enjoyment of life is helpful in diagnosing depression. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress for further information.)
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