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What Is the Connection between Chemotherapy and Depression?

By Marlene de Wilde
Updated Feb 10, 2024
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The connection between chemotherapy and depression is an indirect but common one. Many patients undergoing chemotherapy are highly stressed and anxious and this increases the likelihood that they will suffer from depression. It is not due to somatic changes that caused the depression but rather a psychological response to the life changes that having cancer brings. It has been found that about 25 percent of cancer patients will develop major depression at some time during the course of their condition.

Chemotherapy affects different people in different ways. Some people may not experience any side effects or only a few while others may experience a wide array of traumatic and stressful effects. Chemotherapy is usually a long term treatment with direct side effects such as hair loss, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting. These chemotherapy side effects, combined with the knowledge of having cancer, can result in the patient feeling vulnerable, afraid, socially isolated and depressed. Furthermore, some of the medications prescribed for cancer patients such as analgesics, anti-inflammatory agents, chemotherapy agents and steroids may cause depression or increase the potential for chemotherapy-induced depression.

Living with a chronic disease like cancer, the effects of medications, physical symptoms such as pain and unresolved grief and anger at contracting the condition are all factors that strengthen the connection between chemotherapy and depression. Depression is more than a feeling of sadness but a persistent inability to enjoy life, accompanied by fatigue, loss of energy, changes in appetite, difficulty concentrating and the inability to make decisions. Depression is characterized by a persistent change of mood and is diagnosed if five or more symptoms last for over a week. In some cases, making such a diagnosis is difficult because some of the symptoms of depression are similar to the side-effects of chemotherapy and other cancer medications.

There are ways of dealing with chemotherapy-induced depression. One action that can lessen the fear and anxiety associated with chemotherapy and depression is to join a support group. Often feelings of isolation and stress can be relieved by talking to others undergoing the same issues and who, perhaps unlike friends and family, understand the anxiety and fear of having cancer. Getting professional help is just as important and counseling can be very effective in helping people with issues such as chemotherapy and depression. There are also medications that are effective in dealing with depression which can be prescribed by a doctor. Some of these may have side-effects of their own, however, so these should only be used as a last resort.

WiseGeek is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
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