In the United States, women have a 1 in 8 chance of developing breast cancer at some point in her lifetime.
Even if you never get breast cancer, there’s a good chance a loved one will be affected by the condition.
Similar to other cancers, breast cancer is typically treated with a combination of chemotherapy drugs, radiation therapy, and surgeries. In the case of surgeries, it typically is either a lumpectomy or a mastectomy, in which either a tumor from the breast or the breast as a whole is surgically removed from the body to prevent the cancer from spreading.
A cancer diagnosis can cause a range of emotions in patients, regardless of the stage or type of cancer. Along with fear, many people and their loved ones feel anger, sadness, and stress. These feelings are all normal, and typical when dealing with the disease. When all of these emotions persist over time and begin impacting one’s life beyond the normal difficulties related to cancer, it’s possible that the person is experiencing depression.
While men can get breast cancer, and their own struggles should not be undermined, surgeries such as the mastectomy can be extremely upsetting for women. On top of the burden of handling a cancer diagnosis, women are left to deal with the strong emotions of this huge change to their body, hair loss, and for women who have yet to have children, the future of their fertility. Breast cancer and its associated treatments and effects add another layer to the already extremely emotionally trying time that is dealing with cancer.
It’s no surprise, then, that depression is fairly common among women currently battling or in remission from breast cancer.
Depression presents itself differently in each person. Millions of people struggle with depressive episodes each year, and no two cases are exactly alike. Some common symptoms of depression include loss of interest in activities and daily life, changes in sleep patterns (insomnia or sleeping the day away), major fatigue, difficulty concentrating, and feelings of hopelessness.
Just as the symptoms of depression can present themselves differently for each person, the cause for the depression will vary as well. Some people simply have genetic or biological components that make them susceptible to the condition, some people may experience depression seasonally, and some experience trauma that can lead to depression. A cancer diagnosis and the subsequent treatment and those impacts are extremely stressful both physically and mentally, and certainly can be traumatizing for many people. In some people, the trauma and stress of handling cancer may lead to depression.
In addition to depression, women may experience anxiety about their changing bodies or fear about the future. Both of these things are completely normal as well. Breast cancer forces women to face tough questions about their life, and it’s no wonder that handling these hard emotions can lead to depression and anxiety.
It’s always important to discuss it with your doctor if you’re experiencing these symptoms and think you may be depressed. A medical professional will know the best course of treatment to help you recover.
Breast Cancer and Depression
It’s easy to see how these signs of depression may overlap with some of the extreme emotions that many women experience during their breast cancer journey.
For one, the drastic changes to your body, including mastectomies and hair loss, can bring up a lot of emotions. It’s very difficult to see these things happening to your physical body, but still be powerless in stopping it. That’s not to say all women feel this way during cancer treatment, or that bodily changes are the only thing that cause depression in women with breast cancer. But struggles surrounding body image affect many women, with or without a cancer diagnosis. Dealing with and learning to accept major changes to your physical appearance while also handling everything else that comes with cancer can be extremely difficult. Stresses about changes to one’s physical body goes hand in hand to what many people feel in general when it comes to their cancer diagnosis- helplessness and hopelessness.
And, sometimes, feeling depression is completely out of the patient’s control. Some anti-estrogen therapies incorporated as part of breast cancer treatment can lead to depression from the major hormonal shifts the therapy causes in the body. There’s nothing a patient can do to prevent that.
Regardless of the root cause, depression is never your fault or something you should feel ashamed of. Statistically, about 50% of women battling breast cancer experience depression. It’s a normal emotional response to the difficulties of dealing with cancer. You should never feel like you need to handle it on your own.
What to Do
The first step to getting help should be to mention your feelings of depression to a doctor, ideally on your cancer care team. Because depression is so common among cancer patients, oftentimes they’ll be able to connect you with a therapist who specializes in working with cancer patients and survivors.
Simply talking to someone about what you’re feeling can be a huge relief, and many people can feel positive changes just from speaking with a professional. Based on your unique experience with both your cancer journey and depression, the physicians and therapists will know the best course of action to take for you to heal. This may include group therapy or connecting with other cancer fighters, a referral to another psychiatrist, or a prescription medication.
It can be scary to take the first jump, but being open about when you’re feeling depressed, even if it’s just to your doctor, is a crucial step in beginning to feel better. And don’t worry about it becoming a long, drawn out process. Most patients only end up seeing the therapists for a few months.
Even once remission is achieved, depression and other mental health struggles may continue to be an issue. This could be due to the feeling of loss, either for physical reasons or the time that you were sick, fear about cancer coming back, or a myriad of other reasons. In cases like this, therapy is extremely beneficial in giving survivors a chance to share their story.
In addition to therapy and pharmaceuticals, exercise is known to be a great mood enhancer. However, many women experience fatigue and physical discomfort as side effects to their cancer. It’s normal to not exactly feel ready to jump up on the treadmill and try to get an endorphin rush. Another great option would be to try some slow-paced yoga. A recent study conducted by researchers at Boston University found that yoga truly can help reduce symptoms in people clinically diagnosed with depression. And, the good news is that they believe the most useful part was the deep breathing exercises. No intense physical activity required.
There’s no denying that dealing with cancer is tough. As with the handling of cancer itself, people will want and need to deal with their depression differently. But, sadness and feelings of depression are a normal part of the cancer journey and something that most people go through. The important thing is to always remember that you don’t have to face it alone.