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:
- Reach out to your family and friends. Have a circle of people that surround you with positivity and encouragement.
- 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.
- 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.