Combating Depression in People with Cancer

Man reading to cancer patientFrom the minute they hear the words “you have cancer,” newly diagnosed patients face a storm of emotions. Almost every patient will experience feelings of fear or sadness. Psychologists agree that this is a natural reaction to the major changes that are about to take place in their lives.

If the feelings of sadness reach a certain level—one in which depressive symptoms last for more than two weeks—patients may need to ask for help addressing their emotions. This is especially true if anxiety, sleeplessness, or guilt starts to interfere with their daily lives.

Lifestyle Changes
Some patients can combat depression with minor lifestyle changes. Many report mood improvements after starting a gentle yoga practice; the mind-body therapy is highly relaxing. Similarly, regular meditation can help patients clear their minds of fears about the future.

Patients may also improve their mental quality of life by participating in relaxing alternative therapies. These include:

  • Therapeutic massage
  • Aromatherapy
  • Pet therapy
  • Jin Shin Jyutsu
  • Reiki

Regular exercise also serves as an ideal outlet for anxiety in people whose oncologists have cleared them for physical activity.

Certain natural medicines are also appropriate for patients fighting depression. Some studies have shown that St. John’s wort—a widely available herb—is just as effective as some pharmaceuticals in treating mild to moderate cases of depression. The studies also indicate that it may cause fewer side effects than tricyclic antidepressants—great news for people who are already dealing with enough side effects from cancer treatment.

Professional Services
For patients with more severe depression, these approaches may not provide significant relief. This doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with the patient; it simply means that professional support may be necessary.

Counseling and support groups are often the first line of professional help that cancer patients consider. They are extremely easy to access—many hospitals, cancer centers, advocacy groups, and hospice organizations across the nation offer these forms of emotional care. These options are judgment-free places for people to meet with social workers or therapists who are specially trained in handling oncological issues.

Counseling programs for cancer patients typically touch on issues of mortality, grief, and loss, as well as difficult end-of-life decisions. Patients often walk away from the sessions with practical coping techniques that they can continue to implement on their own.

Support groups also offer patients a forum to share coping mechanisms and successes with other people in the same situation. Most importantly, they help people understand that they are not alone—a concept that lies at the heart of many patients’ fears.

One German study found that individual and group therapy, as well as psychoeducation, yielded small to moderate improvements in emotional distress and quality of life. For many patients, reductions in anxiety and depression lasted for more than six months (although the benefits of relaxation training were more short-term).

Some patients may choose to follow these interventions with medications that combat anxiety, restlessness, or ongoing depression. A professional will prescribe one (or more) that will not interfere with the person’s cancer treatments. Once they’ve started the regimen, they should note benefits within two to four weeks.

As with other aspects of cancer treatment, mental health care is the subject of several clinical trials across the nation. These trials are performed under the supervision of licensed mental health practitioners and oncology workers. People who are interested in this type of depression treatment may consider finding a psycho-oncology care trial that is recruiting participants in their area.


  1. Faller, H., Schuler, M., Richard, M., Heckl, U., Weis, J., & Kuffner, R. (2013). Effects of psycho-oncologic interventions on emotional distress and quality of life in adult patients with cancer: systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. Retrieved from
  2. American Cancer Society – St. Johns Wort. (2008). Retrieved from

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

  • Leave a Comment
  • Abigail


    March 5th, 2013 at 10:50 AM

    The latest I had heard was that St. John’s Wart did not help depression in clinical studies. Is that not correct?

  • diego


    March 5th, 2013 at 11:48 AM

    Pet therapy is the best as I should know
    The hospital i was in for when i had cancer had the best pet therapy ever and i loved all those dogs.
    My best was a dog called bingo he was so cute and loving he’d get up in the bed with me and we’d stay that way for hours
    I was glad to get out of that place but i sure do miss bingo alot

  • Andy J

    Andy J

    March 5th, 2013 at 11:52 AM

    I would like to say how important support groups are. When I was going through cancer treatments, I had major depression. Like, I didn’t care about anything or anyone and was really okay if I didn’t win the cancer fight kind of depression. In addition to individual counseling and medication, I joined a group. The people in my group were so supportive and understanding. It was the only place I could go where people really got me and understood what I was going through on a minute by minute basis. I still go to the support group even though several of our members have lost their fight. We are there for each other through all of life’s ups and downs. I am so grateful to have found them!

  • Cain


    March 5th, 2013 at 11:54 AM

    Joining a clinical trial is a great idea-txs for the suggestion

  • bea


    March 5th, 2013 at 11:57 AM

    My heart goes out to all you warriors out there fighting cancer. A Facebook friend who happens to be just 12 years old is currently fighting through chemo and radiation.

    This girls’ mom is really so smart-always evaluating her for depression without the young girl even knowing it.

    So many great and kind people have gathered around this girl and lifted her up in prayer. I certainly hope she is able to get back to her normal life very soon and that she gets to live a long and healthy life after this.

  • DAN


    March 5th, 2013 at 11:25 PM

    One thing everybody feels after a diagnosis as crushing as this is a sense of not being in control, of losing control over your life. The same happened with an uncle of mine who was diagnosed with cancer.

    I kept telling him he may not have any control over how long he lives – nobody does.But what he has a control over is how he chooses to live the rest of his life, whatever remaining time he has- as do all of us.

    I think if each one of us thinks in this direction there will be a lot less negativity and depression. And any such news that can be so hard to digest then becomes just a little bit easier to handle, because you already know you want to live the rest of your days in the best possible way.

  • GracieH


    March 6th, 2013 at 3:58 AM

    Unfortunately, most patients who receive that dreaded diagnosis are going to be so concerned with what is happening to their bodies and how to get rid of the disease that they pay little attention (and their oncologists are guilty of this too!) to what is going on in their heads. They forget that taking care of themselves mentally can go a LONG way toward helping their physical fight that they are now up against.

  • Cyndi


    March 6th, 2013 at 6:32 PM

    It’s so easy to tell cancer family members how to live, but what’s most important is to truly attentively listen with all your heart, listen to them; listen to the loved one and walk alongside them, helping their dreams experience reality.

  • jillian


    March 6th, 2013 at 11:57 PM

    not being able to go to work for a few days due to being ill can play mind games. I can only imagine what a cancer diagnosis would feel like. isn’t it imperative that they provide help with coping after every such diagnosis? I mean there could be a prescribed code to be followed to help the person cope!

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