Depressive symptoms can be an early sign of cancer, before the cancer itself can be detected. A depression that doesn’t respond to treatment may be a signal that a brain tumour or pancreatic cancer is present.
Farouk was sixty-seven, and he had worked in the office of an industrial firm until he retired. He was in his second marriage, and he and his wife had a son who was twelve. The couple met jointly with a therapist to talk about the troubled state of their marriage, and Farouk’s increasing unhappiness and lethargy. Talking about these problems didn’t change Farouk’s feelings, so the therapist started him on antidepressants, and began to explore his earlier life. The depression continued, and Farouk developed abdominal pain and began to lose weight. Both his therapist and his doctor felt that the weight loss was probably due to the depression. When Farouk’s stomach pains became intolerable, an ultrasound was done, and advanced pancreatic cancer was diagnosed.
Cancer patients often develop depression during the course of treatment. The loss of function, the uncertainty about the outcome, the fear of painful treatments, and the possibility of dying all contribute to this. Some anti-cancer drugs are also known to cause depression. Doctors and staff of cancer treatment centres are aware of these difficulties, and can offer supportive counselling for the patient and the family, as well as antidepressant therapy. Sometimes the anti-cancer drugs can be changed to ease the symptoms.
If you have cancer, though, sadness and grieving are to be expected. Talking about your fears and having a realistic knowledge of the type of cancer and the prognosis may help. Unfortunately, friends and family sometimes shy away from such discussions because of their own discomfort. This can leave you feeling more lonely and isolated than ever. If you can take a matter-of-fact approach, they may be more able to respond. Consider which facts they probably think would upset you, and speak openly about them. Reassure them that you’d feel better talking about the illness, rather than treating it as something too terrible to mention.
You may find another excellent source of support in volunteers who have had the same illness and have learned various ways of dealing with the changes in appearance, energy and mood. Distractions such as exercise and hobbies and just plain having fun can also help.