Understanding cancer and depression

Finding out you have cancer can have a big impact on your mental health. Feelings of sadness, worry and fear are natural. But if these feelings get worse or last a long time it might mean you have depression. Depression is a common condition and not a sign of weakness. You are not alone. There are lots of things which can help.

Can cancer cause depression?

A cancer diagnosis can cause depression. Being told you have cancer is incredibly stressful. You might feel anxious and scared. You also have to deal with the side effects of any treatment and any changes in your life.

Depression can also be caused by changes in hormone levels. Some cancer treatments can affect these levels. These include hormone treatments for prostate and breast cancer or surgery to remove your ovaries or womb.

Not everyone who has cancer experiences depression. But if you do, you should seek help from your GP or care team.

Symptoms of depression for cancer patients

There are lots of symptoms of depression. You may not have them all. They can include changes to your eating or sleeping habits and feeling hopeless or sad.

The key is to seek help when you need it. Depression is common and there are ways to help you cope.

Physical symptoms

You may notice some physical symptoms of depression. These can include not wanting to eat, weight loss or gain, feeling restless, irritable, or tired and sleep problems. You may also have headaches, aches and pains or an upset stomach.

Symptoms vary for each person. It can be hard to tell what is caused by your cancer or treatment and what is depression.

Mental health symptoms

Mental health symptoms of depression can include feeling sad and ‘empty’ all the time. You might also feel helpless or worthless. You might not want to see friends or do things you used to enjoy. You might find it hard to concentrate, feel moody and anxious or focus on problems.

If you are having symptoms like this most of the time and they are affecting your daily life, you may have depression. If you have thoughts about self-harm or suicide, you should talk to someone straight away.

Causes of depression in cancer patients

If you do have depression it could happen at any time, before, during or after your treatment. It is normal to feel sad when you have cancer. But if your low mood lasts a long time or gets worse, you may have depression and need help to cope.

Depression before cancer diagnosis

If you have depression before starting cancer treatment you should let your cancer team know. You might find your depression symptoms get worse after being told you have cancer. A cancer diagnosis can sometimes trigger previous mental health symptoms.

Depression resulting from cancer diagnosis

Being told you have cancer is stressful. It can trigger an episode of depression. You may experience feelings of shock, worry and panic. Some people feel numb or angry.

It is normal to be upset. You may worry about the future or feel sad about how your life is going to change. If you have these feelings a lot and they start to impact your daily life, you could have depression.

Depression from cancer treatment

Going through cancer treatment is hard and this can impact on your mental health. Many cancer treatments have side effects, including physical changes like lack of energy and hair loss. Some treatments can lead to big changes like having to stop work or not being able to see friends.

You might find these changes hard to cope with. This can cause depression. Hormone changes and chemical imbalances caused by some treatments can also lead to depression.

Your side effects and the impact on your mental health depends on things like the type of treatment you have and the dosage.

It is important to remember not everyone who has cancer treatment will experience depression.

Depression after surgery

Some surgery can change the way your body looks or works. These changes might be visible, like scarring, or hidden – like infertility or a reduced sex drive. They can be hard to come to terms with and can cause depression in some cases.

Depression after all clear

Just because you have finished treatment, everything does not just go back to ‘normal’. It takes a lot of effort to get through cancer treatment. You might feel like you are crashing now it is finished.

You might be missing the support of your care team, or friends you made in hospital. How you view yourself might have changed or you might feel pressure to get back to your old life.

These feelings are all natural. But if you feel overwhelmed by them or they do not get better you might want to get extra help.

Get more advice on coping with life after cancer treatment here.

Treating depression for cancer patients

It can be hard to know whether what you are feeling is because of your cancer or depression. Either way, you should talk to someone about how you are feeling.

But if you do have depression, you might need some extra help. The good news is, there is lots of support out there.

Talking with your doctor

If you think you have depression, you should speak to your doctor. They will be able to help you find ways to cope and talk to you about treatment options. This might include medication or referring you to another service to see a clinical psychologist or psychiatrist. They can also give you information about types of therapy.


You may be prescribed an antidepressant to help with your symptoms. There are different types and it may take a few weeks to notice any change.

Antidepressants work by lifting your mood enough to make you feel more able to cope. They are not addictive drugs but when you stop taking them you need to do it slowly.

You should not take the herbal treatment St John’s wort while having cancer treatment.


Talking to a trained therapist can help when you have depression. Talking therapies include counselling, psychotherapy and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). Sessions are private and can help you cope with how you are feeling.

CBT aims to help you control your feelings by understanding how you respond to emotions and situations.

Psychotherapy looks deeper into your problems and worries. It can include talking to a trained therapist or other methods like music or art.

Suicidal thoughts

Not everyone with cancer gets depression. And not everyone with depression has suicidal thoughts. But there are times when it is more likely. This can include if your cancer is very advanced or if you are in a lot of pain.

You may also have passive suicidal thoughts. These are thoughts about wanting to die if your cancer becomes too much or wishing death would come quickly.

Talk to someone straight away if you are having suicidal thoughts. Psychiatric teams may be able to visit you at home. If you need urgent help, go to your hospital’s A&E. The Samaritans have a 24-hour confidential helpline – call 116 123.

Who to talk to for support

If you need help, you can contact one of these organisations 24 hours a day, seven days a week:

  • Samaritans – email jo@samaritans.org, visit org or call 116 123
  • Young Minds – free, 24/7 text support for young people. Text YM to 85258.
  • The Mix crisis messenger – free crisis support across the UK to those 25 and under. Text THEMIX to 85258.

If your life is at risk, or you feel you cannot keep yourself or someone else safe, call 999 or go to your nearest A&E immediately.

Find out more about organisations which can support you with all aspects of mental health here.

How Young Lives vs Cancer can support you

Young Lives vs Cancer offers daily support for each child, young person and family facing cancer. Our social workers are here to help with the everyday challenges cancer brings.

You can also get expert support via our Live Chat or join our Facebook groups. Find out more here about all the support we offer here.

Find out more about coping with feelings, body image and cancer treatment in our health and wellbeing section here.