Depression and Cancer

Last Modified: January 12, 2011


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"

How can I tell if my spouse is "depressed" over his diagnosis or if what he is feeling is "normal"?


Tracy Lautenbach, MSW, LCSW, Social Worker in the Radiation Oncology Department at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, responds:

Some degree of depression is common in people who are coping with cancer, and some cancers are more frequently associated with depression, like those in the pancreas and lung. About 25 percent of all people with cancer experience clinical depression, causing distress, impaired functioning, and a decreased ability to follow a treatment schedule. Not surprisingly, depression is seen more often in people with advanced stages of cancer, those with increased disability due to the cancer and those who have poor pain control.

It is not uncommon for people who learn they have cancer to go through a period of shock, disbelief or even denial. For many, understanding what to expect and gaining more knowledge about the cancer makes it easier to move forward. If the initial sense of hopelessness or helplessness persists and is accompanied by feelings of despair, guilt and hopelessness then the possibility of significant depression should be considered.

It would be important to speak to your spouse and his physician, along with other members of your healthcare team. Both counseling and medications can make a very big difference in how a depressed patient can feel and improve other symptoms at the same time. Treatment for depression has proven benefits for persons with cancer.

From the National Cancer Institute