Article: Depression


This patient summary on depression is adapted from a summary written for health professionals by cancer experts. This and other credible information about cancer treatment, screening, prevention, supportive care, and ongoing clinical trials, is available from the National Cancer Institute. Depression is a disabling illness that affects about 15% to 25% of cancer patients. This brief summary describes the causes and treatment of depression and risk factors and prevention of suicide in adults and children who have cancer.


People who face a diagnosis of cancer will experience different levels of stress and emotional upset. Important issues in the life of any person with cancer may include the following:

  • Fear of death.
  • Interruption of life plans.
  • Changes in body image and self-esteem.
  • Changes in social role and lifestyle.
  • Money and legal concerns.

Everyone who is diagnosed with cancer will react to these issues in different ways and may not experience serious depression.

There are many misconceptions about cancer and how people cope with it, such as the following:

  • All people with cancer are depressed.
  • Depression in a person with cancer is normal.
  • Treatment does not help the depression.
  • Everyone with cancer faces suffering and a painful death.

Sadness and grief are normal reactions to the crises faced during cancer, and will be experienced at times by all people. Because sadness is common, it is important to distinguish between normal levels of sadness and depression. An important part of cancer care is the recognition of depression that needs to be treated. Some people may have more trouble adjusting to the diagnosis of cancer than others. Major depression is not simply sadness or a blue mood. Major depression affects about 25% of patients and has common symptoms that can be diagnosed and treated.

All people will experience reactions of sadness and grief periodically throughout diagnosis, treatment, and survival of cancer. When people find out they have cancer, they often have feelings of disbelief, denial, or despair. They may also experience difficulty sleeping, loss of appetite, anxiety, and a preoccupation with worries about the future. These symptoms and fears usually lessen as a person adjusts to the diagnosis. Signs that a person has adjusted to the diagnosis include an ability to maintain active involvement in daily life activities, and an ability to continue functioning as spouse, parent, employee, or other roles by incorporating treatment into his or her schedule. A person who cannot adjust to the diagnosis after a long period of time, and who loses interest in usual activities, may be depressed. Mild symptoms of depression can be distressing and may be helped with counseling. Even patients without obvious symptoms of depression may benefit from counseling; however, when symptoms are intense and long-lasting, or when they keep coming back, more intensive treatment is important.


The symptoms of major depression include the following:

  • Having a depressed mood for most of the day and on most days.
  • Loss of pleasure and interest in most activities.
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits.
  • Nervousness or sluggishness.
  • Tiredness.
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt.
  • Poor concentration.
  • Constant thoughts of death or suicide.

To make a diagnosis of depression, these symptoms should be present for at least 2 weeks. The diagnosis of depression can be difficult to make in people with cancer due to the difficulty of separating the symptoms of depression from the side effects of medications or the symptoms of cancer. This is especially true in patients undergoing active cancer treatment or those with advanced disease. Symptoms of guilt, worthlessness, hopelessness, thoughts of suicide, and loss of pleasure are the most useful in diagnosing depression in people who have cancer.

Some people with cancer may have a higher risk for developing depression. The cause of depression is not known, but the risk factors for developing depression are known. Risk factors may be cancer-related and noncancer-related.

  • Cancer-Related Risk Factors:
    • Depression at the time of cancer diagnosis.
    • Poorly controlled pain.
    • An advanced stage of cancer.
    • Other life events that produce stress.
    • Increased physical impairment or pain.
    • Pancreatic cancer.
    • Being unmarried and having head and neck cancer.
    • Treatment with some anticancer drugs.

  • Noncancer-Related Risk Factors:
    • History of depression.
    • Lack of family support.
    • Family history of depression or suicide.
    • Previous suicide attempts.
    • History of alcoholism or drug abuse.
    • Having many illnesses at the same time that produce symptoms of depression (such as stroke or heart attack).

The evaluation of depression in people with cancer should include a careful evaluation of the person's thoughts about the illness; medical history; personal or family history of depression or suicide; current mental status; physical status; side effects of treatment and the disease; other stresses in the person's life; and support available to the patient. Thinking of suicide, when it occurs, is frightening for the individual, for the health care worker, and for the family. Suicidal statements may range from an offhand comment resulting from frustration or disgust with a treatment course, such as "If I have to have one more bone marrow aspiration this year, I'll jump out the window," to a statement indicating deep despair and an emergency situation, such as, "I can't stand what this disease is doing to all of us, and I am going to kill myself." Exploring the seriousness of these thoughts is important. If the thoughts of suicide seem to be serious, then the patient should be referred to a psychiatrist or psychologist, and the safety of the patient should be secured.

The most common type of depression in people with cancer is called reactive depression. This shows up as feeling moody and being unable to perform usual activities. The symptoms last longer and are more pronounced than a normal and expected reaction but do not meet the criteria for major depression. When these symptoms greatly interfere with a person's daily activities, such as work, school, shopping, or caring for a household, they should be treated in the same way that major depression is treated (such as crisis intervention, counseling, and medication, especially with drugs that can quickly relieve distressing symptoms). Basing the diagnosis on just these symptoms can be a problem in a person with advanced cancer since the illness may be causing decreased functioning. It is important to identify the difference between fatigue and depression since they can be assessed and treated separately. In more advanced illness, focusing on despair, guilty thoughts, and a total lack of enjoyment of life is helpful in diagnosing depression. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Normal Adjustment, Psychosocial Distress, and the Adjustment Disorders for further information.)

Medical factors may also cause depression in cancer patients. Medication usually helps this type of depression more effectively than counseling, especially if the medical factors cannot be changed (for example, dosages of the medications that are causing the depression cannot be changed or stopped). Some medical causes of depression in cancer patients include uncontrolled pain; abnormal levels of calcium, sodium, or potassium in the blood; anemia; vitamin B12 or folate deficiency; fever; and abnormal levels of thyroid hormone or steroids in the blood.


Major depression may be treated with a combination of counseling and medications, such as antidepressants. A primary care doctor may prescribe medications for depression and refer the patient to a psychiatrist or psychologist for the following reasons: a physician or oncologist is not comfortable treating the depression (for example, the patient has suicidal thoughts); the symptoms of depression do not improve after 2 to 4 weeks of treatment; the symptoms are getting worse; the side effects of the medication keep the patient from taking the dosage needed to control the depression; and/or the symptoms are interfering with the patient's ability to continue medical treatment.

Antidepressants are safe for cancer patients to use and are usually effective in the treatment of depression and its symptoms. Unfortunately, antidepressants are not prescribed often for cancer patients. About 25% of all cancer patients are depressed, but only about 2% receive medication for the depression. The choice of antidepressant depends on the patient's symptoms, potential side effects of the antidepressant, and the person's individual medical problems and previous response to antidepressant drugs.

St. John's wort (Hypericum perforatum) has been used as an over-the-counter supplement for mood enhancement. In the United States, dietary supplements are regulated as foods not drugs. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not require that supplements be approved before being put on the market. Because there are no standards for product manufacturing consistency, dose, or purity, the safety of St. John's wort is not known. The FDA has issued a warning that a significant drug interaction occurs between St. John's wort and indinavir (a drug used to treat HIV infection). When St. John's wort and indinavir are taken together, indinavir is less effective. Patients with symptoms of depression should be evaluated by a health professional and not self-treat with St. John's wort. St. John's wort is not recommended for major depression in patients who have cancer.

Most antidepressants take 3 to 6 weeks to begin working. The side effects must be considered when deciding which antidepressant to use. For example, a medication that causes sleepiness may be helpful in an anxious patient who is having problems sleeping, since the drug is both calming and sedating. Patients who cannot swallow pills may be able to take the medication as a liquid or as an injection. If the antidepressant helps the symptoms, treatment should continue for at least 6 months. Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) is a useful and safe therapy when other treatments have been unsuccessful in relieving major depression.

Several psychiatric therapies have been found to be beneficial for the treatment of depression related to cancer. These therapies are often used in combination and include crisis intervention, psychotherapy, and thought/behavior techniques. These therapies usually consist of 3 to 10 sessions and explore methods of lowering distress, improving coping and problem-solving skills; enlisting support; reshaping negative and self-defeating thoughts; and developing a close personal bond with an understanding health care provider. Talking with a clergy member may also be helpful for some people.

Specific goals of these therapies include the following:

  • Assist people diagnosed with cancer and their families by answering questions about the illness and its treatment, explaining information, correcting misunderstandings, giving reassurance about the situation, and exploring with the patient how the diagnosis relates to previous experiences with cancer.

  • Assist with problem solving, improve the patient's coping skills, and help the patient and family to develop additional coping skills. Explore other areas of stress, such as family role and lifestyle changes, and encourage family members to support and share concern with each other.

  • When the focus of treatment changes from trying to cure the cancer to relieving symptoms, the health care team will not abandon the patient and family and will maintain comfort, control pain, and maintain the dignity of the patient and his or her family members.

Cancer support groups may also be helpful in treating depression in cancer patients, especially adolescents. Support groups have been shown to improve mood, encourage the development of coping skills, improve quality of life, and improve immune response. Support groups can be found through the wellness community, the American Cancer Society, and many community resources, including the social work departments in medical centers and hospitals.

Considerations for Depression in Children

Most children cope with the emotions related to cancer and not only adjust well, but show positive emotional growth and development. A minority of children, however, develop psychologic problems including depression, anxiety, sleeping problems, relationship problems, and are uncooperative about treatment. A mental health specialist should treat these children.

Children with severe late effects of cancer have more symptoms of depression. Anxiety usually occurs in younger patients, while depression is more common in older children. Most cancer survivors are generally able to adapt and adjust successfully to cancer and its treatment; however, a small number of cancer survivors have difficulty adjusting.

Diagnosis of Childhood Depression

The term depression refers to a symptom, a syndrome, a set of psychological responses, or an illness. The length and intensity of the response (such as sadness) distinguishes the symptoms from the disorder. For example, a child may be sad in response to trauma, and the sadness usually lasts a short time. Depression, however, is marked by a response that lasts a long time, and is associated with sleeplessness, irritability, changes in eating habits, and problems at school and with friends. Depression should be considered whenever any behavior problem continues. Depression does not refer to temporary moments of sadness, but rather to a disorder that affects development and interferes with the child's progress.

Some signs of depression in the school-aged child include the following:

  • Not eating.
  • Inactivity.
  • Looking sad.
  • Aggressive behavior.
  • Crying.
  • Hyperactivity.
  • Physical complaints.
  • Fear of death.
  • Frustration.
  • Feelings of sadness or hopelessness.
  • Self criticism.
  • Frequent day dreaming.
  • Low self-esteem.
  • Refusing to go to school.
  • Learning problems.
  • Slow movements.
  • Showing anger towards parents and teachers.
  • Loss of interest in activities that were previously enjoyed.

Some of these signs can occur in response to normal developmental stages; therefore, it is important to determine whether they are related to depression or a developmental stage.

Determining a diagnosis of depression includes evaluating the child's family situation, as well as his or her level of emotional maturity and ability to cope with illness and treatment; the child's age and state of development; and the child's self esteem and prior experience with illness.

A comprehensive assessment for childhood depression is necessary for effective diagnosis and treatment. Evaluation of the child and family situation focuses on the child's health history; observations of the behavior of the child by parents, teachers, or health care workers; interviews with the child; and use of psychological tests.

Childhood depression and adult depression are different illnesses due to the developmental issues involved in childhood. The following criteria may also be used for diagnosing depression in children:

  • A sad mood (and a sad facial expression in children younger than 6) with at least 4 of the following signs or symptoms present every day for a period of at least 2 weeks:
    • Appetite changes.
    • Either not sleeping or sleeping too much.
    • Being either too active or not active enough.
    • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities.
    • Signs of not caring about anything (in children younger than 6).
    • Tiredness or loss of energy.
    • Feelings of worthlessness.
    • Self-criticism or inappropriate guilt.
    • Inability to think or concentrate well.
    • Constant thoughts of death or suicide.

Treatment of Childhood Depression

Individual and group counseling are usually used as the first treatment for a child with depression, and are directed at helping the child to master his or her difficulties and develop in the best way possible. Play therapy may be used as a way to explore the younger child's view of him- or herself, the disease, and treatment. From the beginning of treatment, a child needs help to understand, at his or her developmental level, the diagnosis of cancer and the treatment involved. A doctor may prescribe medications, such as antidepressants, for children. Some of the same antidepressants prescribed for adults may also be prescribed for children.

Evaluation and Treatment of Suicidal Cancer Patients

The incidence of suicide in cancer patients may be as much as 10 times higher than the rate of suicide in the general population. Passive suicidal thoughts are fairly common in cancer patients. The relationships between suicidal tendency and the desire for hastened death, requests for physician-assisted suicide, and/or euthanasia are complicated and poorly understood. Men with cancer are at an increased risk of suicide compared with the general population, with more than twice the risk. Overdosing with pain killers and sedatives is the most common method of suicide by cancer patients, with most cancer suicides occurring at home. The occurrence of suicide is higher in patients with oral, pharyngeal, and lung cancers and in HIV-positive patients with Kaposi's sarcoma. The actual incidence of suicide in cancer patients is probably underestimated, since there may be reluctance to report these deaths as suicides.

General risk factors for suicide in a person with cancer include the following:

  • A history of mental problems, especially those associated with impulsive behavior (such as borderline personality disorders).
  • A family history of suicide.
  • A history of suicide attempts.
  • Depression.
  • Substance abuse.
  • Recent death of a friend or spouse.
  • Having little social support.

Cancer-specific risk factors for suicide include the following:

  • A diagnosis of oral, throat, or lung cancer (often associated with heavy alcohol and tobacco use).
  • Advanced stage of disease and poor prognosis.
  • Confusion/delirium.
  • Poorly controlled pain.
  • Physical impairments such as the following:
    • Loss of mobility.
    • Loss of bowel and bladder control.
    • Amputation.
    • Loss of eyesight or hearing.
    • Paralysis.
    • Inability to eat or swallow.
  • Tiredness.
  • Exhaustion.

Patients who are suicidal require careful evaluation. The risk of suicide increases if the patient reports thoughts of suicide and has a plan to carry it out. Risk continues to increase if the plan is "lethal," that is, the plan is likely to cause death. A lethal suicide plan is more likely to be carried out if the way chosen to cause death is available to the person, the attempt cannot be stopped once it is started, and help is unavailable. When a person with cancer reports thoughts of death, it is important to determine whether the underlying cause is depression or a desire to control unbearable symptoms. Prompt identification and treatment of major depression is important in decreasing the risk for suicide. Risk factors, especially hopelessness (which is a better predictor for suicide than depression) should be carefully determined. The assessment of hopelessness is not easy in the person who has advanced cancer with no hope of a cure. It is important to determine the basic reasons for hopelessness, which may be related to cancer symptoms, fears of painful death, or feelings of abandonment.

Talking about suicide will not cause the patient to attempt suicide; it actually shows that this is a concern and permits the patient to describe his or her feelings and fears, providing a sense of control. A crisis intervention-oriented treatment approach should be used which involves the patient's support system. Contributing symptoms, such as pain, should be aggressively controlled and depression, psychosis, anxiety, and underlying causes of delirium should be treated. These problems are usually treated in a medical hospital or at home. Although not usually necessary, a suicidal cancer patient may need to be hospitalized in a psychiatric unit.

The goal of treatment of suicidal patients is to attempt to prevent suicide that is caused by desperation due to poorly controlled symptoms. Patients close to the end of life may not be able to stay awake without a great amount of emotional or physical pain. This often leads to thoughts of suicide or requests for aid in dying. Such patients may need sedation to ease their distress.

Other treatment considerations include using medications that work quickly to alleviate distress (such as, antianxiety medication or stimulants) while waiting for the antidepressant medication to work; limiting the quantities of medications that are lethal in overdose; having frequent contact with a health care professional who can closely observe the patient; avoiding long periods of time when the patient is alone; making sure the patient has available support; and determining the patient's mental and emotional response at each crisis point during the cancer experience.

Pain and symptom treatment should not be sacrificed simply to avoid the possibility that a patient will attempt suicide. Patients often have a method to commit suicide available to them. Incomplete pain and symptom treatment might actually worsen a patient's suicide risk.

Frequent contact with the health professional can help limit the amount of lethal drugs available to the patient and family. Infusion devices that limit patient access to medications can also be used at home or in the hospital. These are programmable, portable pumps with coded access and a locked cartridge containing the medication. These pumps are very useful in controlling pain and other symptoms. Some pumps can give multiple drug infusions, and some can be programmed over the phone. The devices are available through home care agencies, but are very expensive. Some of the expense may be covered by insurance.

Effects of suicide on family and health care providers

Suicide can make the loss of a loved one especially difficult for survivors. Survivors often have reactions that include feelings of abandonment, rejection, anger, relief, guilt, responsibility, denial, identification, and shame. These reactions are affected by the type and intensity of relationship; the nature of the suicide; the age and physical condition of the deceased; the survivor's support network and coping skills; and cultural and religious beliefs. Survivors should have help during this period of grieving. Mutual support groups can lessen isolation, provide opportunities to discuss feelings, and help survivors find ways to cope.

The reactions of health care providers to the suicide are similar to those seen in family members, although caregivers often do not feel they have the right to express their feelings.

Assisted Dying, Euthanasia, and Decisions Regarding End of Life

Respecting and promoting patient control has been one of the driving forces behind the hospice movement and right-to-die issues that range from honoring living wills to promoting euthanasia (mercy killing). These issues can create a conflict between a patient's desire for control and a physician's duty to promote health. These are issues of law, ethics, medicine, and philosophy. Some physicians may favor strong pain control and approve of the right of patients to refuse life support, but do not favor euthanasia or assisted suicide. Often patients who ask for physician-assisted suicide can be treated by increasing the patient's comfort, relieving symptoms, thereby reducing the patient's need for drastic measures. Patients with the desire to die should be carefully evaluated and treated for depression.

Suicide and Children

Suicide is as rare among adolescents who have no other mental disorders as it is among adults. The adolescent often believes that his or her disease is outside the realm of control, and is in the hands of God or some other force. Refusing treatment is not a way of attempting suicide, but comes from his or her belief that fate, luck, or God determines life and death.

In the general population, about 2,000 adolescents in the United States die by suicide each year. Suicide continually ranks as the second or third leading cause of death of persons between the ages of 15 and 34 years old. Children are less prone to suicide before puberty due to immature reasoning capabilities that make planning and carrying out suicide difficult. The suicide rate in young people has more than doubled during the period from 1956 to 1993. This increasing suicide rate has been blamed on the increase of adolescent alcohol abuse. Chronic and acute illnesses were not major causes of suicide in the young. The suicide rate for male adolescents is four times as high as the rate for females. The suicide rate for white adolescents is about twice as great as the rate for African-Americans and Hispanics. Little is known about the occurrence of thoughts of suicide and attempts in children with cancer.

The risk factors for the general population of children include:

  • Biologic factors: Family history of mental problems such as depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence, and conduct disorders. Genetic predisposition to low levels of serotonin is associated with depression.

  • Predisposing life events: An early family history of abuse by a parent; negative life event such as loss of a parent; childhood grief; and disturbed, hostile relationships in the family. Many other social problems and negative life events do not seem to cause suicidal behavior.

  • Social factors: The very nature of adolescence itself with its desire to experiment with drugs and alcohol. Conflict or confusion about sexual orientation can be a factor in adolescent suicide. Also, characteristics such as perfectionism, impulsiveness, inhibition, and isolation all can lead to thoughts of suicide.

  • Mental problems: Ninety five percent of young people who commit suicide have a mental disorder. These are usually major depression, schizophrenia, alcoholism, drug dependence, and conduct disorder. However, most children with mental problems do not commit suicide.

  • Contagion: An expression that describes the phenomenon of young people identifying with others who have committed suicide. Some young people who are vulnerable may copy suicidal behavior. Friends of a cancer patient who has committed suicide should be offered support and counseling.

  • Deadly weapons available: A gun in the house can allow suicide to occur.

  • Motivating events: The diagnosis of cancer can cause a person at risk to attempt suicide. Usually a mental disorder, other life stresses, an upsetting event such as a failure in school, or life-threatening disease such as cancer is already present.

Some adolescent cancer survivors may be overwhelmed by feelings of hopelessness. This may lead to thoughts of suicide. Suicide is treated by the careful evaluation of the child with cancer and his or her family. The multiple factors that can make a child's life unbearable need to be examined. Suicide prevention must include individual evaluation; referral to the correct health professionals; treatment with medications; and both individual counseling and family therapy.

Changes to This Summary (06/22/2004)

The PDQ cancer information summaries are reviewed regularly and updated as new information becomes available. This section describes the latest changes made to this summary as of the date above.

Changes were made to this summary to match those made to the health professional version.

Questions or Comments About This Summary

If you have questions or comments about this summary, please send them to through the Web site's Contact Form. We can respond only to email messages written in English.

To Learn More


For more information, U.S. residents may call the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) Monday through Friday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Deaf and hard-of-hearing callers with TTY equipment may call 1-800-332-8615. The call is free and a trained Cancer Information Specialist is available to answer your questions.

Web sites and Organizations

The NCI's Web site provides online access to information on cancer, clinical trials, and other Web sites and organizations that offer support and resources for cancer patients and their families. There are also many other places where people can get materials and information about cancer treatment and services. Local hospitals may have information on local and regional agencies that offer information about finances, getting to and from treatment, receiving care at home, and dealing with problems associated with cancer treatment.


The NCI has booklets and other materials for patients, health professionals, and the public. These publications discuss types of cancer, methods of cancer treatment, coping with cancer, and clinical trials. Some publications provide information on tests for cancer, cancer causes and prevention, cancer statistics, and NCI research activities. NCI materials on these and other topics may be ordered online or printed directly from the NCI Publications Locator. These materials can also be ordered by telephone from the Cancer Information Service toll-free at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237), TTY at 1-800-332-8615.


The NCI's LiveHelp service, a program available on several of the Institute's Web sites, provides Internet users with the ability to chat online with an Information Specialist. The service is available from 9:00 a.m. to 10:00 p.m. Eastern time, Monday through Friday. Information Specialists can help Internet users find information on NCI Web sites and answer questions about cancer.


For more information from the NCI, please write to this address:

NCI Public Inquiries Office
Suite 3036A
6116 Executive Boulevard, MSC8322
Bethesda, MD 20892-8322

About PDQ

PDQ is a comprehensive cancer database available on

PDQ is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. Most of the information contained in PDQ is available online at, the NCI's Web site. PDQ is provided as a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health, the federal government's focal point for biomedical research.

PDQ contains cancer information summaries.

The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries are available in two versions. The health professional versions provide detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions provide current and accurate cancer information.

The PDQ cancer information summaries are developed by cancer experts and reviewed regularly.

Editorial Boards made up of experts in oncology and related specialties are responsible for writing and maintaining the cancer information summaries. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made as new information becomes available. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") indicates the time of the most recent change.

PDQ also contains information on clinical trials.

Some patients have symptoms caused by cancer treatment or by the cancer itself. Patients who have symptoms related to cancer treatment may want to take part in a clinical trial. A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one method of treating symptoms is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During supportive care clinical trials, information is collected about new treatment methods, the risks involved, and how well they do or do not work. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard."

Listings of clinical trials are included in PDQ and are available online at Descriptions of the trials are available in health professional and patient versions. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237); TTY at 1-800-332-8615.

Source: National Cancer Institute
Cache Date: December 10, 2004