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Cancer and Mental Health

Cancer does not just affect your body, it can also affect your mind and many people will experience significant changes to their emotional health. Finding out you have cancer can have a big impact on a person and their loved ones; and feelings of depression, anxiety and fear are common. But it is important to remember that there is hope and help available and many cases of mental illness can be treated. Even though a person with depression may also have cancer, it does not mean their depression is any less treatable.

Everyone knows it is better to catch cancer earlier, at stage one instead of later at stage four. The same is true for mental health conditions. Unfortunately, many people with cancer are never told about the chance they will develop a mental health condition like depression nor will they receive treatment for it.

How many people with cancer have a mental health condition?

  • It is estimated that up to one-third of people treated for cancer in hospitals have a common mental health condition. [1]
  • Rates of major depressive disorder are thought to be up to three times higher than in the general population. [2]
  • Anywhere from 8-24% of people with cancer are also living with depression. [3]
  • Youth and young adults are at greater risk for depression and other conditions compared to adults with cancer. [4]

Barriers to care

There are several reasons why a person with cancer may not get help for their mental health condition:

Cancer, depression and anxiety have shared symptoms like fatigue, lack of sleep, and decreased appetite which can make recognizing mental health conditions difficult. This is a group that regularly faces threats to life and figuring out what is a regular reaction to cancer diagnosis and treatment versus signs one has a mental health condition can be hard.

Cancer care teams often lack specific skills to recognize mental health conditions. Some in the community do not agree on what depression is and looks like. With so much time and money spent on cancer treatment, many are forced to see their mental health as less important and do not seek help.

Having a mental health condition while living with cancer can worsen outcomes

It has been found that people with depression might have worse cancer-related outcomes. They might be less likely to follow treatment plans or take prevention screens. For example, they may be less likely to exercise, more likely to drink too much alcohol or miss therapy appointments. [5]

Studies show that those dealing with severe mental illness, dementia and substance use are more likely to have lower chances of survival after cancer diagnoses. [6]

Mental health treatment can improve survival rates

Many professionals are wondering whether mental health treatment can change the course of cancer and there is good reason to believe it could!

One study found that those who got treatment and had fewer symptoms of depression, had longer average survival times than those who had more symptoms. [7]

People who get treatment, often see improvement in their overall medical condition, are more likely to follow through with medical care and have a better quality of life.

If you think you might be showing signs of a mental health condition, talk to your doctor about treatment options such as counseling, medication and therapy. [8]

Mental health screening can help

Researchers have suggested the need for routine mental health screening in oncology settings. Self-report test like screening are quick, easy and inexpensive and don’t have to given by a doctor, something MHA has been working on since 2014. Take a screen at 


Nakash O, Levav I, Aguilar-Gaxiola S, et al. (2013). Comorbidity of common mental disorders with cancer and their treatment gap: findings from the World Mental Health Surveys. Psycho-oncology23(1), 40-51.

Smith H. R. (2015). Depression in cancer patients: Pathogenesis, implications and treatment (Review). Oncology letters9(4), 1509-1514. Retrieved from

Krebber, A. M., Buffart, L. M., Kleijn, G., Riepma, et al. (2013). Prevalence of depression in cancer patients: a meta-analysis of diagnostic interviews and self-report instruments. Psycho-oncology23(2), 121-30. Retrieved from

Park, E. M., & Rosenstein, D. L. (2015). Depression in adolescents and young adults with cancer. Dialogues in clinical neuroscience17(2), 171-80. Retrieved from

Pinquart, M., & Duberstein, P. R. (2010). Depression and cancer mortality: a meta-analysis. Psychological medicine40(11), 1797-810. Retrieved from

Chang, C., Hayes, R. D., Broadbent, M. T., Hotopf, M., Davies, E., Møller, H., & Stewart, R. (2014, January 01). A cohort study on mental disorders, stage of cancer at diagnosis and subsequent survival. Retrieved from

Smith H. R. (2015). Depression in cancer patients: Pathogenesis, implications and treatment (Review). Oncology letters9(4), 1509-1514. Retrieved from

Lamberg L: “Treating Depression in Medical Conditions May Improve Quality of Life.” JAMA 1996; 276(Dec. 18):857-858.