Living with and beyond cancer

Depression and other negative emotions

Being diagnosed or treated for cancer can have a major effect on people’s emotions. People living with cancer may experience emotions such as shock, fear, anger, sadness, loneliness or depression. These may occur not just at diagnosis or during treatment, but also when adjusting to life afterwards. Some people we spoke to who had survived five or more years after a cancer diagnosis were still living with changes to their emotions.
 
Some people said they were easily angered or were more aggressive than they used to be. Trivial problems or situations could annoy them and provoke them to ‘fly off the handle’ without warning. It is natural for people to resent having cancer or to feel frustrated that it restricted what they could do, and some recognised that this was probably the cause of their anger. Others, however, saw their feelings as a side effect of chemotherapy even though many years had passed since their treatment. A man who had breast cancer eight years ago said he was more stubborn than he used to be and that he sometimes said things to his wife that he didn’t mean but couldn’t find the right words to say what he did mean.
Some people said that they felt more emotional since their cancer, saying that certain situations could make them tearful, such as when talking to other people about cancer or watching a sad television programme. A man who had lived six years with pancreatic cancer, and was now terminally ill, said that his life had inevitably become more emotional as a result of his illness progression.
Anxiety is another natural reaction to having cancer, and several people said they suffered from this. Alan (quoted above) said he worried about things more than he used to and had nightmares due to anxiety. Some people worried that their cancer might return (see also ‘Facing the future’). A man who had hot sweats as a symptom of testicular cancer five years ago said he becomes anxious when he feels sweaty nowadays because it is a reminder of his illness. Anxiety can cause a variety of physical symptoms, including sweating, as well as psychological disturbances such as poor concentration, irritability and sleep disruption.
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It was common for people to say they felt depressed at times or had ‘down days’ since their cancer. These days were characterised by low mood and lethargy. Some said they didn’t feel like doing anything on those days. Janet (Interview 69) has chronic lymphocytic leukaemia, which causes tiredness, and her social life has become restricted as a result. She says she is depressed because she is isolated. Depression may be a particular problem for people who are still living with cancer symptoms or lasting effects of treatment, but it can also affect those who are in remission.
Many people deal with depression on their own or with the help of close friends and family. Some choose to join a self-help or support group to meet and share experiences with other people who are in the same situation. Others seek professional help. GPs or cancer specialists can refer people to speak to a counsellor or a psychologist. A man who had lived for five years with pancreatic cancer said that talking to a psychologist had been a useful ‘release valve’ to prevent him from bothering his family. Some people may be offered anti-depressant medication; Ian said that he had used anti-depressants periodically since his leukaemia when things were getting him down.
Others had rejected conventional medication in favour of herbal products. There is evidence that St John’s Wort can help people with depression and although it may cause fewer side effects it may also be less effective than conventional anti-depressants. Herbal medicines can interact with conventional medicines, so people considering using them should consult their doctor. A man who had testicular cancer took a herbal remedy that has since been banned in the UK because of a rare but serious risk to health. He was offered anti-depressants by his GP but chose to try alternative therapies instead.

For more resources on depression and anxiety please visit our Resources section. 

​Last reviewed August 2015.
Last updated August 2015.

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