Cancer Treatment

When Depression Strikes During Cancer Treatment

3 tips for overcoming depression from a cancer survivor

By Katie Ressler

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Depression is not a top concern for many patients when they first receive a cancer diagnosis, but without a careful eye, depression can sneak up on patients, making the battle more grueling. When Scott Davis, 53, from Lagrange, Georgia, learned he had colorectal cancer, he thought it was just a bump in the road and he would quickly recover.

“I thought I would have surgery, end up with a little scar, and then I’d be on my happy way,” Davis says.

Before his diagnosis, Davis was planning to compete in a body-building competition. He was very active and in great health, apart from some symptoms that his doctor believed were caused by a hemorrhoid that was irritated by his level of activity.

Determined to get an answer after months of no resolution, Davis had two colonoscopies before he learned the cause of his symptoms: colorectal cancer.

Within the next month, Davis had surgery. He expected that surgery would remove all the cancer, but after surgery, pathology reports showed that Davis had cancer cells in his lymph nodes. His doctor suggested he undergo chemotherapy.

The start of a downward spiral

Experiencing symptoms for months, getting a cancer diagnosis, and then learning the cancer had spread were blows to Davis. The setbacks continued to pile on, and when chemotherapy was more strenuous and harsh on his body than he expected, Davis felt like he was mentally spiraling downward.

“As soon as the nurses hooked chemo up to my port, I felt like the chemo was sucking the life out of me,” Davis says. “Prior to cancer, I took care of my house, cared for my wife and helped my friends and family with whatever they needed. Fast forward a few months and I was being pushed around in a wheelchair.”

Through cancer treatment, Davis lost much of the strength he worked so hard to build. Chemotherapy changed how food tasted and diminished his appetite, leading to significant weight loss. He struggled with memory loss and concentration, which made it difficult for him to continue working during treatment.

When people receive a cancer diagnosis, it’s normal for them to feel scared, worried, anxious and sad, says Katherine Puckett, PhD, Director, Department of Mind-Body Medicine at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, Illinois. She points out that these feelings of sadness are different from clinical depression, which is diagnosed based on specific criteria and symptoms. These symptoms may make persevering through treatment more difficult.

Be aware of symptoms

Most people know about the mood-related symptoms of clinical depression: feeling down, sad, hopeless and worthless. Many other symptoms may indicate depression, including:

  • Behavioral symptoms, such as losing interest in enjoyable activities, frequently crying, withdrawing from loved ones and losing motivation to complete daily activities;
  • Cognitive symptoms, such as having a decreased ability to concentrate, difficulty in making decisions, experiencing memory issues and negative thinking; and
  • Physical symptoms, including feeling fatigued, losing your appetite, experiencing insomnia (inability to fall asleep) or hypersomnia (excessive sleepiness) and decreased sexual desire or other sexual problems.

Davis says depression made him feel helpless, hopeless and that he was living with no purpose. “I remember the first day that I couldn’t go back to work. I was lying in bed when my wife came in and kissed my forehead before she left for the day. After she left, the silence was numbing,” Davis says, “All I could think was, ‘where is my life going?’”

Identifying depression and finding help

Eventually, Davis decided to go to CTCA® at Southeastern Regional Medical Center (Southeastern) in Newnan, Georgia for an evaluation and felt hopeful about resuming cancer treatment.

His oncologist and nurses recognized that, like many cancer patients, depression was impacting his quality of life, and that cancer treatment was exacerbating his depression.

Davis worked with Andrea Swartz, Clinical Oncology Dietitian at Southeastern to address his loss of appetite, which had led to loss of strength. Swartz helped him find ways to add calories to his diet to help him regain weight. Addressing his physical symptoms helped his mental state.

Mind-body therapists at CTCA taught Davis strategies to deal with his negative thoughts. He realized he could no longer keep his negative thoughts in his head. He began speaking about his feelings more and writing them down in what has now become a 120-page book.

Lastly, he joined the Cancer Fighters program where he volunteers to speak with newly diagnosed cancer patients, letting them know they’re not alone.

“To me, the whole point of being human is helping your fellow man,” says Davis. “Helping other cancer patients has helped me.”

Surviving with depression

Although Davis has completed cancer treatment, he continues to face depression. “It’s still a battle because I think too much. I lay down at night and relive the whole journey. I can feel myself sinking. When this happens, I force myself to get up and do something to get my mind elsewhere.”

Davis says that he if could talk to himself when he was first diagnosed, he would suggest three tips:

  1. Reach out to your family and friends. Have a circle of people that surround you with positivity and encouragement.
  2. Stay active. Don’t stagnate. Keep moving and keep your mind engaged. When you’re just sitting or lying, your mind often wanders to places you don’t want it to be.
  3. Be your own advocate. No matter how overwhelming it can seem, get the information you need to face cancer treatment.

If you currently experience any symptoms of depression, seek out a licensed mental health professional to help you work through your emotions. If depression was a part of your cancer journey, be aware that it can resurface due to fear of recurrence, long-term physical effects from treatment, or even survivor guilt. To alleviate these feelings, surround yourself with the people you love, sharing your feelings with them and taking time to have fun in their company.

 

No case is typical. You should not expect to experience these results.

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Comments

  • Donna Keene

    I, too, suffered from depression during the time I was undergoing chemotherapy. I think depression came when chemicals were being pumped into my body that I didn’t want & I realized I no longer had control over my body. It was a rough time for me, I cried a lot and felt angry (towards God, my husband and people telling me that if I call myself a Christian I shouldn’t feel fear). I think peace came when it dawned on me I never had control over myself, that the control was, & always had been, God. When I rested in the fact that He alone knew my beginning and my ending and that it was He who was carrying me every step of the way, I was able to relax. I mentally did a “free fall” into the Father’s hands. It took me awhile to see that, accept it, and trust in it. I accepted everything my Oncologist said to me; I accepted all the help that was offered me through C.T.C.A.(Zion, IL); I listened to fellow cancer patients who were months ahead of me in their care and advised me what helped them; and I prayed for God’s will in my life. I look back on that time (5 years ago) as a bad dream but on the other hand I had grown in my faith during my walk in the “valley of the shadow.” My husband once said “Our faith is like a muscle, it needs to be stretched in order for it to grow.” I was stretched and I feel stronger because of it.

    • Dalya Horowitz

      I was touched by your writing. I am a 10 year breast cancer survivor and I felt the same way you did at first. Then I too was able to relax and enjoy life by understanding that none of us knows when it’s our time and we need to live a purposeful and happy life and let God take care of the rest. Thanks for a very meaningful post.

  • Leslie Marie Buford-Chadwick

    I have just been informed about 2 months ago now that i have breast cancer yes its stage 0 but because of being a carrier of the HER2-Brca2 gene i am facing a bilateral double mastectomy just waiting for the plastic surgeon to get a hold of surgeon and schedule it. I am freaking out, scared, nervous, in shock. People keep asking me what i need I have no clue. I mean I don’t want sympathy and people to worry about me. But this is not the road i wanted to take. I mean I have had to make appointments to get my ovary removed, get a pancreatic cancer screen plus get checked out for Skin Cancer as well. I just don’t know how to reach out to family and such. I keep crying. I suffered from Chronic depression before the diagnosis and well its gotten worse. I can’t even get myself to play video games, color in my coloring adult therapy books. I even bought a FUCK Cancer coloring book and i cant even get myself to color in that. I am only 39 years old and not sure where to go or who to turn to.

    • Jim Dawson

      Looking back on my journey it is hard for me to fathom that one little thing was the tipping point for me. As insignificant and trivial as it was. I had been home for a while, days were getting blurred and fuzzy. I was sinking further and further into the pit. The light at the top was dimming and I was starting to have “those thoughts”… (let’s leave it at that)…. My wife was VERY worried yet she tried very hard to hide it from me. Always being positive and upbeat. Never a cross word, you know the drill. Anyway, one morning she work up extra early and got me up with her. Said she wanted me to to out of the house, which she called my personal prison. She said “take your motorcycle and just go out and get out”. She was quite unyielding about it too. So, when “mama says” daddy does….
      SO… I mustered all the fortitude I could thinking all the while I am wasting my time and this is meaningless. Come to find out, I do very much enjoy riding my bike (as you can see in the photo). The wind in your face, sun in your eyes and road slipping away under your feet. One of the things also about riding my bike is my ever present thought…… “don’t crash, don’t crash”….. I was told when I was being shown how to ride way back in the day… “Keep the shiny side UP and the rubber side DOWN and you should be ok”. Strong words… good words.
      So out on my ride I started. I saw my home slipping away in the rear view and it had become my security blanket and I was scared. I am leaving my “safe place”. But, as I continued down the road, I quickly remembered “don’t crash, don’t crash” and the cycle of negative thinking was snapped. I then started to have to concentrate on driving a motorcycle.
      Next thing i know, I am 200 miles away and pulling into a fast food place. My appetite is SOMEWHAT back and I nibble on some food.
      Long story short… which I am really bad at… stay active… it is the little things.
      Scott

  • Nancy Huskey Straw

    18 months since Ovarian Cancer diagnosis and still working, but I’m whipped. I’m so tired and so tired. (Did I say I was tired?) 🙂 Thank you, thank you for writing about this. Sometimes I don’t even want to get off my couch. God bless you!