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Hand in Hand: Depression and Cancer

Hand in Hand: Depression and Cancer

How depression and psychological distress can impact radiation therapy treatment for people who have cancer.

Hand in Hand: Depression and Cancer

Monday, July 30, 2018 - 12:30

Jason Socrates Bardi, Editor

(Inside Science) -- “One of his passions was to be by the ocean. He also loved being a police officer. He loved watching cop shows ever since he was a little kid. My dad was a 27-year veteran of the Elizabeth Police Department in New Jersey. He was diagnosed with lung cancer, stage four.

“Throughout his journey with cancer treatment I did see things change in him: He stopped doing things that interested him, he stopped going to the beach, he stopped watching the movies he used to love. He started to just become more introverted and not wanting to get out of bed, not enjoying anything anymore. This is called Anhedonia, and this is a really strong predictor of depression in cancer patients.

“Now I realize he was presenting with symptoms of depression. When I was shadowing for [a] radiation oncologist, I saw that there seemed to be other patients who were presenting with similar symptoms as my dad -- he wasn’t an isolated case. And so, looking into literature, I found that there’s a higher prevalence of depression in oncology patients,” said Jason Domogauer from Rutgers Medical School.

Many within the medical community are focusing on how mental states affect patient outcomes. Several studies in 2017 illuminated how the symptoms of depression and psychological distress can complicate treatment for people who have cancer.

“We found that patients who had higher, what we called severe, distress were more likely to miss their treatment appointments, so over 50 percent of our patients had a missed treatment appointment if they reported severe distress, compared to only 18 percent for those who didn’t report severe levels of distress,” said Justin Anderson at Bethune-Cookman University.

“The take-home is it’s probably important that you recognize patients have these issues that may complicate treatment; we think it’s important to proactively attempt to manage things like depression and other illnesses actively when patients are undergoing cancer therapy,” said Robert Miller at the Mayo Clinic.

“There’s an idea that it takes a lot of time to have these conversations and screen for depression. There’s research that shows that just strictly going out and asking a patient, “Do you have depression?” is actually shown to lead to a positive diagnosis. It’s also important to note that they are not alone, that there are individuals who have gone through it before, and that it’s not something you should keep quiet -- and these conversations need to be had, both for their mental health as well as their physical health,” said Domogauer.

If you or a loved one may be suffering from depression, talk to your doctor or a mental health provider. To learn more about depression and its treatment, visit:

Filmed at the ASTRO Annual Meeting, from 24-27 September 2017 in San Diego.

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Jason Socrates Bardi is the former News Director of the American Institute of Physics and a longtime science writer.