“Death may be a one-time event, but living with terminal illness is a process,” said Paul Kalanithi, an Indian-American neurosurgeon and writer, in his book “When Breath Becomes Air.” Truly, physical and spiritual suffering associated with a life-threatening disease can pose significant challenges to patients, families and caregivers.
A cancer diagnosis can be a life-altering event as it brings one face-to-face with mortality. Grief and despair are common as is anxiety and depression in cancer patients. Of late, significant advancements in science, technology and genetic engineering have given considerable hope to cancer patients, and not every cancer prognosis is seen as an early death sentence. But despite a drastic reduction in pain and suffering associated with different types of cancers, many cancer patients still suffer from comorbid anxiety and depression. Changes in the body, loss of muscle mass, unpreparedness for death, and a sense of loss induces feelings of despair and melancholia.
Depression was initially thought to be a consequence of the external and internal stressors linked with cancer; however, a recent study published in Translational Psychiatry suggested that certain chemotherapy drugs could also be a precursor to depression.
Need to ensure impact of drugs on patients’ moods
The goal of chemotherapy is to control the symptoms and provide a palliative care to the patient. While radiation and surgery target tumors or cancerous cells from one region of the body only, chemotherapy drugs can kill cancerous cells that have spread far away from the original tumor. In certain instances, where cure is not possible, these drugs are used for controlling the growth of these cells. However, in advanced stages of cancer, these are used for improving the quality of life of a person.
While the link between depression and cancer was known all along, it was difficult to predict the actual cause of this association. According to the present study, drugs used during chemotherapy might be responsible for the behavioral and biological changes in the patients.
Chemotherapy stops all cells in the body from dividing, including the brain cells. According to the researchers, when chemotherapy was administered, there was a significant decrease in the growth and development of new brain cells in the hippocampus, the region of the brain associated with emotions and learning. This process called neurogenesis impacts stress hormones and greater neurogenesis is associated with greater exposure to stress or anxiety.
According to Dr. Sandrine Thuret, senior author of the study, “Our study highlights the importance of protecting brain stem cells or building up a reserve of cells before cancer treatment. This could help to preserve the mood and cognitive functions these cells are known to regulate, and could also improve quality of life for people with cancer.” However, further investigation into the role of antidepressants and other drugs in fulfilling this deficiency of brain cells post chemotherapy is required to ensure a quality life for cancer patients.
Seeking professional help
While it is normal to grieve over the loss of life and impending mortality, clinical depression can come in the way of cancer care. Cancer patients with clinical depression are less likely to take their medications in time. They are also more likely avoid timely medication and treatment and have suicidal thoughts.
Listed below are a few strategies to help a cancer patient overcome his or her depression:
- Encouraging treatment for depression until symptoms improve
- Ensuring mild physical activity like daily walks, however, these can be avoided in advanced stages of cancer, where bone health is impaired
- Indulging in activities that are enjoyable
- Identifying the symptoms of depression, such as hopelessness and pessimistic thinking
If you or your loved one is struggling with depression, contact the Depression Treatment Helpline to find the top depression recovery centers in the U.S. Call our 24/7 helpline number 866-619-7729 or chat online with our counselors to find the best rehabilitation centers for depression in your area.