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Coping with Depression and Cancer

Anxiety and Depression

Affecting anywhere from 15-25% of cancer patients, including caregivers, depression can be a challenge for many. This equates to up to 4 times higher than the general population. While emotional stress is common, depression is something different. Depression for cancer patients can be caused by the disease itself, including imbalances in brain chemicals, side effects from treatment, presence of tumors in the central nervous system, and nutritional deficiencies [i][ii].


Importance of Managing Stress and Anxiety.

In a recent review article, the perpetual progression of tumor growth may be spurred on by stress induced inflammation. Additionally, reduced immune response, disruptions in sleep and fatigue, and microbiome alterations may exacerbate the disease and treatment outcomes [ii]. If the depressed feelings are prolonged and consistent, it may be helpful to talk to a professional who can help you identify what creates these inner emotions and help you find the appropriate treatment.


A Common Feeling

Depression and anxiety can be a common feeling, especially during the cancer journey. The diagnosis of a chronic illness may lead us to question the next steps in our journey. New conversations with clinicians, new and complex medications, demanding treatments, and unique symptoms add a foreign element to this new chapter. The unexpected can cause depression and anxiety, yet we are often reluctant to discuss these feelings with the support system, including family and physicians.


The Mysterious Future

How do we continue to support our independence when the world is changing so fast? Some of us explore or learn new skills. We may set new goals and restructure our lives to be happy in the present moment. Some of us just sit with the change and suffer emotionally, feeling lost, dazed and confused. It is important to not look back and always stride forward, strongly.


Take Action

Since depression is something that may be common, it is beneficial to make the right moves going forward.


  • Nutrition. The Mediterranean Diet rich is in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and healthy fats including fatty fish, nuts and seeds. It is rich in omega-3 fat which has been associated with a reduction in depressive symptoms [ii][iii]. Try including more of these healthy foods in the diet.
  • Communicate with your family and healthcare providers about your feelings. Identifying the core feelings and connecting all the pieces will help to distinguish sadness from depression.
  • Listen to what your support system tells you.  Sometimes, listening to the perspectives of those who are on the outside can help sort out the chaos that may be inside of your head.
  • Experiment with new opportunities. Learning new coping mechanisms like music, yoga, journaling, gardening, traveling, and volunteering are some ways to discover positivity. However, if any of these activities are unable to be done due to consistent and heavy sadness, speak to your doctor, as this may be depression.
  • Breathe. Try mindfulness meditation, and exercise. These activities can be an emotional thermometer to a happier, more peaceful state, to improve your life and the life of those around you.


These are just a few steps toward emotional wellness during a cancer journey. Be sure to speak with your health care team and social worker for more individual resources and support.


[i] Depression (PDQ) Health Professional Version. National Cancer Institute (NIH). Accessed at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings/depression-hp-pdq
[ii] Bortolato, B.; Hyphantis, T.N.; etal. Depression in cancer: the many biobehavioral pathways driving tumor progression. Cancer Treatment Reviews. (2017). V52 Pp 58-70
[iii] Garcio-Toro M.; Gili M.; Ibarra O.; Monzon S.; Vives, M.; Garcia-Campayo J.; et al: Metabolic syndrome improvement in depression six months after prescribing simple hygienic-dietary recommendations. BMC Res Notes 2014; 7:Pp.339
Kathi Morse

Dr. Kathi Morse is a licensed clinical social worker in New York State, having earned her PhD from New York University Silver School of Social Work. Her goal is to work to improve the quality of life of all her clients, ultimately helping them find the resources they need to live a good life and to understand their rights according to the law. She has worked with children, adolescents & adults living with chronic disease and is advanced certified in Hospice and Palliative Care. She has recently presented a number of workshops on topics including How to have a Serious Communication, How to ask the Questions No One Wants to Ask but Should, Staying Psychologically Healthy, and Caregivers and the Responsibilities to Themselves as Well as to the Individual they are Caring For. Dr. Morse always looks for ways to both receive and provide quality education.

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