By Heather Millar
When I finished the toughest part of my treatment about a year ago, I expected to feel elated. After all, the surgeries, chemo, and radiation were over. And I did feel happy, for about a day after that last radiation session.
Then, the dark cloud fell over me. For a few weeks, just getting out of bed was a major triumph. I had trouble organizing my thoughts. I didn’t feel like I was worth anything. I didn’t want to do anything or see anyone.
I knew I was depressed. Doctors and support group members had told me that the toughest patch often comes when all the bustle and drama of treatment is over. Plus, depression runs in my family and I’ve taken a mild anti-depressant for decades. But I was unprepared for the magnitude of this depression. It was not just the blahs. No sir, it was BIG. And despite my knowledge and experience of depression, I reacted passively. Maybe that was part of the depression; I don’t know. In any case, I was slow to take action, and that is not like me at all.
Finally, a college pal who’s a doctor urged me to do something. She pointed out that I’d been taking a low-dose of an anti-depressant and that maybe I should just try doubling it for a couple days and see what happened. Obviously, I should have talked to my oncologist or my internist about this, but I didn’t. I just doubled my dose.
The cloud lifted. I still had a lot of processing and thinking to do as I began to re-engage with the regular, non-cancer world. But with a bit more pharmacologic help on board, I was no longer readjusting while wearing an emotional lead coat. I did call my doctor then, and she was fine with doubling my prescription.
Earlier this month, a study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute found more evidence that it makes sense to screen cancer patients for depression.
Researchers at University of Colorado Denver and other institutions did a “meta-analysis — a study that brings together results from other studies and tries to draw broad conclusions from them. They collected data from 10 studies that involved 1,362 patients and found that interventions to treat depression in cancer patients can be effective. Apparently, previous studies had looked at various interventions as a whole, not those specifically designed to treat depression.
The researchers found that cognitive behavioral therapy, which tries to coach people into new ways of thinking and behaving, and various drugs seemed to help depressed cancer patients the most.
It’s tough enough to deal with cancer treatment and recovery. Don’t add depression to your load. If you’re blue and don’t find yourself interested in anything, if you’re sleeping all the time and it’s not because of chemo or radiation or some other treatment side effect, if you’re fighting just to get through a normal day, ask your doctor for help. Tell him, or her, that the evidence is now on your side.
Have you battled depression during treatment or recovery or survivorship? What helped you? What didn’t?