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Many people go through a time of grief and sadness when they first learn that they have cancer. They grieve the loss of health and certainty in their lives. This sadness may seem like depression, but it's usually not the same. Grieving—feeling sadness, fear or anger, among other emotions—is a common reaction to learning you have cancer. It usually doesn't last a long time, and is a normal, healthy response to such a profound change in a person's life.

However, about 1 in 4 people with cancer becomes depressed. Depressed people often have very low energy, decreased drive to do things and trouble making decisions. They also may feel useless or helpless. Depression can make it much harder to keep up with cancer treatment plans.

Signs of depression

You may be depressed if your time of grieving lasts for weeks and doesn't seem to be getting any better; has you feeling worthless or hopeless; or causes problems with your day-to-day activities (such as being too sad to leave the house or get out of bed).

If you have any of the following signs for more than two weeks, talk to your doctor about treatment. Some of these symptoms could be due to physical problems, so it's important to share how you are feeling with your care team.

Emotional signs:

  • Feelings of sadness that don't go away
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling nervous or shaky
  • Having a sense of guilt or feeling unworthy
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless, as if life has no meaning
  • Feeling short-tempered, moody
  • Having a hard time concentrating, feeling scatterbrained
  • Crying for long periods of time or many times each day
  • Focusing on worries and problems
  • No interest in the hobbies and activities you used to enjoy
  • Finding it hard to enjoy everyday things, such as food or being with family and friends
  • Thinking about hurting yourself
  • Thoughts about killing yourself

Body changes:

  • Unintended weight gain or loss not due to illness or treatment
  • Sleep problems, such as not being able to sleep, having nightmares, or sleeping too much
  • Racing heart, dry mouth, increased perspiration, upset stomach, diarrhea
  • Changes in energy level
  • Fatigue that doesn't go away
  • Headaches, other aches and pains

Getting help

Some people are embarrassed or afraid to admit it if they're depressed. It may help to know that depression can be caused by the chemical changes that go along with cancer. It's not a sign of weakness, and it's no one's fault. Depression can be treated with medicines, counseling, or both. Treatment for depression can help you feel better and regain a sense of control and hope for the future. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns or questions about depression.

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