Depression and Lung Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Minesh Khatri, MD on July 24, 2022
4 min read

Finding out you have lung cancer is a big blow. You’re going to have lots of emotions. It’s normal to feel worried, anxious, and scared about what this new reality means for you and your future. In addition to taking care of what your body needs now, you’ll need to think about your mind, too. On top of the cancer, depression is a serious concern when you have lung cancer. Depression can make it harder for you to function and go through treatment. It can even influence your chances of surviving with lung cancer. Many people with lung cancer have depression, and in about half of them, depression will persist.

Studies have looked at depression when you have lung cancer. They’ve also looked at risk factors for depression with lung cancer.

A 2016 study looked at 987 people with lung cancer. Half of them had a poor prognosis and the other half had a good prognosis. Before treatment, about a third of people with lung cancer had depression based on their own ratings. In more than half of them, depression continued.

The type of lung cancer and treatment options will make a difference to your risk. People with small-cell lung cancer had depression 3 times more often than those with non-small-cell lung cancer. It’s more common in women. But men who aren’t doing well based on other measures have depression more than women do.

Risk factors for depression included:

  • Limits that the illness placed on those in the study
  • Lung cancer-related symptoms
  • Fatigue
  • How a doctor rated their status

Overall, the study found that depression is a common problem when you have lung cancer. It’s most likely when you have more symptoms and when lung cancer is making it harder for you to function and do normal activities.

Another study looked at people who got admitted to the hospital with lung cancer and major depressive disorder. It found 12% of lung cancer patients had major depressive disorder. The risk was greater in people with lung cancer who were:

  • Women
  • White
  • Age 55 or younger

So if you are a younger woman with lung cancer, take extra care of your mental health and watch for signs of depression. But it’s important for doctors and loved ones to look for signs of depression in anyone with a lung cancer diagnosis.

A 2019 study looked at symptoms of depression in people with advanced non-small-cell lung cancer. People in the study were waiting to start treatment. Most people (64%) didn’t have symptoms of depression or had only mild symptoms. But almost 1 in 3 had moderate depressive symptoms, and almost 1 in 10 had severe depressive symptoms.

People with symptoms of depression more often had:

Those with depression symptoms also thought that the lung cancer couldn’t be controlled with treatment. They had more pain and cancer-related symptoms. So if you have lung cancer and more symptoms, you’re at more risk for depression. If you or a loved one with lung cancer has feelings of hopelessness, anxiety, stress, and depression, let your doctors know and get help.

Depression when you have lung cancer worsens your quality of life. It makes it harder to function and go through what’s needed to treat the cancer. But depression also may affect your survival with lung cancer.

One study looked at this in 157 people with advanced lung cancer. People in the study completed questionnaires to measure symptoms of major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder over more than 2 years. The researchers looked at survival while factoring in differences in:

  • Age
  • Race
  • Employment status
  • Income
  • Smoking

They found that anxiety didn’t affect a person’s chances of survival. But depression did. People without depression or only mild symptoms had more than a 50% chance of surviving for 15 months. People with moderate to severe depression had closer to a 30% chance of surviving 15 months.

It’s normal to feel sad sometimes, especially when you have lung cancer. But you shouldn’t feel down all the time. If you’ve been feeling down, sad, or tearful every day for 2 weeks or more, it’s time to get help. Other symptoms to watch for include:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Trouble eating or loss of appetite
  • Aches and pains
  • Constipation
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Feeling hopeless, not just about the cancer but also about your ability to spend time with people you love or stay comfortable
  • Feeling worthless or a sense that life has no meaning
  • Feeling guilty
  • Feeling as though you’re a burden to your family and friends or that you deserve to be punished
  • Thoughts of suicide


If you are in crisis, reach out to your doctor or a loved one for help. If you are thinking about harming yourself or have plans to harm yourself, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or dial “988.”

If you aren’t in crisis but are worried about your mental health, there’s a lot you can do. Some ideas include:

  • Telling friends and family how you feel so they can help
  • Joining a support group where you can talk to other people who really understand and have been there
  • Finding an experienced therapist
  • Taking steps to control what you can control
  • Taking time to sleep, eat well, exercise, and relax
  • Taking time for activities and people that you enjoy and that bring you joy
  • Trying mindfulness activities, such as coloring, meditating, reading, or knitting

One study found that walking for 40 minutes a day, 3 days a week, improved anxiety and depression in people with lung cancer. So help is out there. And there are also simple steps you can take to help you with feelings of depression when you have lung cancer.