Breast Cancer and Depression

October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month.  While most people are aware of the physical trials for breast cancer patients and survivors, the emotional challenges are less well known.

Emotional or behavioral disruptions such as loss of energy, insomnia, mood changes and loss of cognition are common in those diagnosed with cancer and may interfere with patients’ quality of life.

Of the emotional disturbances, depression is one of the most common and the most studied.  According to the National Institutes of Health, approximately 1.5 to 50 percent of women with breast cancer experience depression.  Between 20 and 30 percent of women experience higher depression symptoms during this time, but the number with major depressive disorder may be much lower.  One study found that approximately 9 percent of ambulatory breast cancer patients met the criteria for major depression.  While the prevalence is highest within the first six months, depressive symptoms tend to decline over time.

According to Mental Health America, there are approximately 12 million women in the United States who experience depression each year.  There are more than 3.1 million women with a history of breast cancer.  One in eight women will likely develop clinical depression in their lifetime, which is the same percentage of women who are estimated to be diagnosed with breast cancer.

The World Health Organization named depression as the world’s most widespread illness, and it has increased more than 18 percent over the last decade. In the U.S., an estimated 16.1 million adults—about 7 percent of the population—has experienced at least one depressive episode in the last year, according to the National Institute of Mental Health.  The National Alliance on Mental Health reports that mood disorders—including major depression—are the third most common cause of hospitalization in youth and adults ages 18-44.

While cancer and depression can both be life altering, advances in medicine make them treatable. For depression, medications including antidepressants, psychotherapy, brain stimulation therapies and light therapy all work well. Alternative approaches such as acupuncture, meditation, faith and nutrition also can be included as part of a comprehensive treatment plan.

Treatment is more successful for both breast cancer and depression when started early.   If you or someone you know has depression, seek help immediately.