Health issues are an unfortunately common reality for older adults. Although many seniors enjoy retirement without serious health concerns, aging does increase your risk of a number of illnesses. Cancer can be a particularly devastating diagnosis, and managing it can take a toll on your mental health. Sometimes, the news of a cancer diagnosis or the difficulty of treatment leads to depression. Data shows that people with cancer have a higher rate of depression, and this may be especially true for older adults who are already dealing with loneliness and isolation. Depression is treatable, but you first have to recognize that something is wrong. If you or an aging loved one has cancer, you should understand the connection between cancer and depression, the common symptoms of the condition, and what resources are available for support.
The Link Between Cancer and Depression
Depression is more common among people with cancer than the general population. Between 15 and 25 percent of cancer patients struggle with depression, which is more than double the rate among all adults.
Cancer is a physical illness, but it’s an incredibly difficult emotional experience as well. Fear, anxiety, and anger are all normal emotions after a cancer diagnosis. You’re coming to terms with a future that may look different than you had expected, and this isn’t easy. You may feel like your whole world has turned upside-down, which can lead to some intense emotions.
You may face physical limitations and lifestyle changes after your cancer diagnosis, too. You might experience fatigue, nausea, or body pains, which can be very demotivating. The physical discomfort can reduce your quality of life, and it prevents you from fully enjoying and engaging in your usual activities, which leads to further distress.
Everyone copes with illness differently. Being diagnosed with cancer doesn’t mean that mental health issues are inevitable. However, dealing with such a difficult illness does make you vulnerable to depression.
Sometimes, people develop depression after recovering from cancer. Readjusting to your usual routine after battling an illness can feel overwhelming, and you may not have as much support from family, friends, and doctors as you did when you were in the midst of your cancer diagnosis. Fear of recurrence is another major contributor to post cancer depression.
Recognizing Depression in Older Adults With Cancer
Depression isn’t always obvious, especially when the person struggling has cancer. Many of the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment are similar to the effects of depression. For example, fatigue is extremely common in people with cancer, and it’s also one of the most recognizable depression symptoms. In many cases, doctors or family members attribute the person’s fatigue to their cancer treatment, overlooking the possibility of a mental health issue.
Older adults are often quiet about their emotions, too. They tend to be more private about their mental health than younger generations, so they may keep their psychological struggles to themselves. Seniors who have cancer may attribute their emotional difficulties only to the cancer and not to a mental health disorder. They’re also more likely to describe the physical effects of depression, like fatigue or loss of appetite, than the emotional symptoms.
The symptoms of depression may start small and gradually worsen, which makes it hard to notice a change. If you or a loved one has cancer, staying alert for signs of depression is key. Here are some of the most common symptoms:
• A prolonged period of sadness or hopelessness
• Loss of interest in usual activities
• Changes in sleeping habits
• Feelings of guilt or shame
• Difficulty focusing or making decisions
If you or a loved one with cancer has some of these symptoms, it could be caused by the cancer or cancer treatment. However, it’s always helpful to be cautious. If there’s any chance that depression is playing a role, consult with a mental health professional.
Treatment for Depression During or After Cancer
Unfortunately, resources for mental health treatment are underutilized by people with cancer. One study found that 12 percent of patients with advanced cancer had a major mental health condition, but only one-fourth of those people had received treatment for it.
There are a few reasons older adults with cancer may not get treatment for depression. The disorder is commonly overlooked in people with cancer, and you can’t get treatment for something if you don’t know you have it.
Exhaustion and a lack of motivation are other reasons why people with cancer may hesitate to get mental health support. These are common symptoms for anyone with depression, but they can be especially challenging for people with cancer. You already spend so much time attending medical appointments and worrying about your health, and you may not want to add another visit to your schedule.
If you think you have depression, try to reach out for support. Because the condition causes feelings of hopelessness, you may not feel like treatment will help. Mental health services are very effective for treating depression, though, and it is always possible to improve your emotional well-being. No matter your physical health struggles, you deserve to feel mentally well.
Support groups can offer a valuable network for older adults with cancer and depression. They provide a chance to connect with others who are going through a similar experience, which can help you feel less alone.
Support from family and friends is key, too. This can happen on multiple levels. If you have a loved one battling cancer and depression, you can assist with tasks like arranging rides to appointments, preparing meals, or cleaning up around the house. These activities can be difficult for older adults, cancer patients, and people with depression. For someone in all three of these categories, it might feel impossible.
It’s important for family and friends to offer support on an emotional level, too. Seniors may not want to speak in depth about their feelings, but you can let them know that you love them and will listen if needed.
Individual therapy is one of the best options for treating depression in cancer patients. Therapy can be an opportunity to safely express the anger, grief, and anxiety you have regarding your cancer diagnosis. You can identify and challenge the unhealthy thoughts you have about yourself and the world, and you can develop coping skills for accepting and managing your cancer diagnosis.
If you or a loved one is affected by cancer, keep an eye out for signs of depression or other mental health conditions. A serious physical illness can affect your mental health, but help is available both during and after your sickness. Managing your depression while you fight cancer will improve your outlook, increase your motivation, and help you enjoy your life despite your illness.
Blue Moon Senior Counseling provides therapy for older adults. Our licensed counselors specialize in working with seniors and addressing their unique mental health needs. Contact us today to learn more about our mental health services.