Depression and your cancer journey


The mixed bag of emotions you experienced when you were first diagnosed tends to rear its head throughout your cancer journey, even when you’ve finally completed treatment. Relief is coupled with the euphoria of having come through the many challenges.

You may feel delight that your taxing chemo/radiation regime is now a thing of the past. Sure, there’s a lot to be happy and grateful for. But coupled with these positive feelings often come the negatives too: the anger, sadness, fear and loss you went through right at the start.

While all of this is completely normal, you should nevertheless chat to your doctor if these negative emotions persist. Studies show that one in three and even half of study participants, or one in two cancer survivors, struggle with mental health issues such as depression too.

Depression is an all-encompassing illness that affects your body, mind and spirit, explains Cassey Chambers, Operations Manager of The Depression and Anxiety Support Group (SADAG). “It affects you mentally, emotionally and physically, impacting upon every aspect of your life, from your eating and sleeping patterns to the way you feel about yourself and the rest of the world. Depression is certainly not a sign of weakness that can be wished away, nor can you simply pull yourself together and magically get better. Depression is actually far more serious than many people tend to believe, because without receiving treatment your symptoms can persist for weeks, months, or even years,” she adds.

What to look out for to flag depression

“Depression has many possible causes and is often brought on by a mixture of different factors including traumatic events - such as a diagnosis of cancer”, says Chambers.

Warning signs for depression include:

  • Persistent sad, anxious, or “empty” mood
  • Feelings of hopelessness and pessimism
  • Feelings of guilt, worthlessness, helplessness and self reproach
  • Insomnia, early-morning awakening, or oversleeping
  • Restlessness, irritability, hostility.
How is depression treated?

Depression is fortunately one of the most treatable of mental illnesses, with between 80% and 90% of depressed people responding to treatment and nearly all depressed people who receive treatment experiencing at least some form of symptom relief. “However just as no two people are affected in exactly the same way by either a cancer or depression diagnosis, there is also no ‘one size fits all’ form of treatment,” says Professor Michael Herbst, a health specialist at CANSA. “What may work for one person may not work for another, so the best way to treat depression is to become as informed as possible about the available options and to then tailor them – together with a professional – to meet your personal needs”.

CANSA and SADAG offer the following suggestions when it comes to treating depression:

  • Learn as much as you can about depression, and seek professional help to determine the cause (your symptoms may be from an underlying medical condition that may need to be treated first).
  • Be patient. You need to understand that it does take time to find the right treatment and it may involve some trial and error before you discover what will work best for you (which may mean changing your medication).
  • Take your medication. According to SADAG, eight out of 10 people with depression will make a good recovery on anti-depressants. Remember that they don't work quickly and it could take between two and three weeks for you to feel better.
  • Don’t rely on medication alone. Although it can relieve the symptoms, it’s not always suitable for long-term use. Other treatments, including exercise and therapy, can be just as effective (with your doctor’s consent).
  • Get moving and eat healthily. Both exercise and a balanced diet can be beneficial to your emotional and mental health as they reduce stress and help elevate your mood.
  • Ask for help. Talk to trusted family or friends, or join a support group where you’ll meet up with others who have walked your path.
  • Go for psychotherapy with a psychologist, social worker, or counsellor. Cognitive-behavioural therapy (CBT) is a proven and very effective type of therapy that may be recommended to help you to identify your thoughts and emotions and to manage your depression. You’ll learn how to replace any negative and unproductive thought patterns with more realistic and useful ones and will be offered specific steps to assist you in overcoming your symptoms of depression.

All medical information found on this website including content, graphics and images, is for educational and informational objectives only. Discovery Health publishes this content to help to empower cancer patients and their families by promoting a better understanding of a cancer diagnosis. The views expressed by all of the contributing healthcare providers are their independent, professional medical opinions, aimed at supporting patients. These views do not necessarily constitute the views of Discovery Health.


The Discovery Health Medical Scheme is an independent non-profit entity governed by the Medical Schemes Act, and regulated by the Council for Medical Schemes. It is administered by a separate company, Discovery Health (Pty) Ltd, an authorised financial services provider.

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