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Depression (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - Overview

Depression is a comorbid disabling syndrome that affects approximately 15% to 25% of cancer patients.[1,2,3,4] Depression is believed to affect men and women with cancer equally, and gender-related differences in prevalence and severity have not been adequately evaluated.[5] Individuals and families who face a diagnosis of cancer will experience varying levels of stress and emotional upset. Depression in patients with cancer not only affects the patients themselves but also has a major negative impact on their families. A survey in England of women with breast cancer showed that among several factors, depression was the strongest predictor of emotional and behavioral problems in their children.[6] Fear of death, disruption of life plans, changes in body image and self-esteem, changes in social role and lifestyle, and financial and legal concerns are significant issues in the life of any person with cancer, yet serious depression or anxiety is not experienced by everyone who is diagnosed with cancer.

Just as patients require ongoing evaluation for depression and anxiety throughout their course of treatment, so do family caregivers. In a study of family caregivers of patients in the palliative phase of illness, both male and female caregivers experienced significantly more anxiety than normal samples, while there was an increased incidence of Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale–defined depression among women.[7]

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Study Populations

The level of evidence required for informed decision making about genetic testing depends on the circumstances of testing. Evidence from a sample of high-risk families may be sufficient to provide useful information for testing decisions among people with similar family histories but is likely to be insufficient to make early recommendations for, or decisions about, testing in families with less dramatic histories or in the general population. Even among people with similar family histories, however,...

Read the Study Populations article > >

There are many myths about cancer and how people cope with it, such as the following:

  • All people with cancer are depressed.
  • Depression in a person with cancer is normal.
  • Treatments are not helpful.
  • Everyone with cancer faces suffering and a painful death.

Sadness and grief are normal reactions to the crises faced during cancer. All people will experience these reactions periodically. Because sadness is common, it is important to distinguish between normal degrees of sadness and depressive disorders. An end-of-life consensus panel review article describes details regarding this important distinction and illustrates the major points using case vignettes.[8] A critical part of cancer care is the recognition of the levels of depression present and determination of the appropriate level of intervention, ranging from brief counseling or support groups to medication and/or psychotherapy. For example, relaxation and counseling interventions have been shown to reduce psychological symptoms in women with a new diagnosis of gynecological cancer.[9] Some people may have more difficulty adjusting to the diagnosis of cancer than others and will vary in their responses to the diagnosis. Major depression is not simply sadness or a blue mood. Major depression affects approximately 25% of patients and has recognizable symptoms that can and should be diagnosed and treated because they have an impact on quality of life.[10,11] Depression is also an underdiagnosed disorder in the general population. Symptoms evident at the time of a cancer diagnosis may represent a preexisting condition and warrant separate evaluation and treatment.

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