I think a lot of cancer patients have a tendency to write-off depression as just part of the “cancer sucks” territory. But the problem is: if you don’t take it seriously, you won’t get treatment. The Lancet recently published a study out of Oxford and the University of Edinburgh that found that nearly three-quarters of cancer patients with major depression do not get treatment. You can find a layperson’s explanation here, and the scientific paper here.
I find these findings so tragic. No one should have to endure chemo and all the rest AND depression. As the study points out, depression can make cancer symptoms worse, increasing fatigue and pain. Some patients get so down that they don’t take their medications because they feel that their prognosis is completely hopeless.
Why don’t people get help?
Perhaps it’s because depressed cancer patients have an internal dialog that goes something like the first sentence of this post. Or perhaps it’s because the idea of being diagnosed with a mental illness makes them ashamed or uncomfortable. Maybe it’s because they’re just too exhausted and depressed to get off the couch and do something.
I know what that feels like. I’m adopted. My biological mother had bipolar disorder (what used to be called “manic depression”). I was diagnosed with mild clinical depression in my 20s. I’ve been taking one or another pill for it for nearly 25 years. This is what “mild” depression looks like: Before I started taking anti-depressants, I would curl up in ball on the bed in the morning, not wanting to get up. I felt tired all the time. I was irritable. I often felt hopeless.
Then I got cancer. The whirlwind of treatment kept me so busy for almost year that I didn’t really have time to give in to very many blue moods. I was engaged in the battle, I felt I had purpose. I was trying to whip cancer, and trying to shield my daughter from the worst of it.