Depression is a normal part of cancer and it can go on many months and even years after treatment has ended. Depression is a normal part of cancer; however, it can be overcome and even sidestepped by following a few crucial steps.
A low or dark mood after treatment has ended is one of the most common side effects of cancer. It seems counterintuitive that a cancer survivor who has completed treatment would become depressed. Why would this be? You would expect to feel elated after completing treatment.
In their book, Picking Up the Pieces, Sherry Magee, Ph.D and Kathy Scalzo, M.S.O.D. report that all cancer survivors express three idealistic wants, regardless of the severity of their cancer or the intensity of their treatment. They want:
• A guarantee that the cancer is gone and won’t come back.
• Reassurance that they are doing the right things to keep the cancer away.
• A definite deadline by which they will feel normal again.
The reassurance that cancer survivors seek comes by understanding how a healthy immune system has the ability to detect, track down, and destroy every cancer cell in their body; and then, by taking the steps to restore the health of their immune system.
Depression suppresses the immune system. It is analogous to driving your car with the emergency brake engaged.
When cancer survivors speak of the desire to feel normal again, they are usually speaking of the lingering fatigue, lack of interest, and loss of concentration that subdues them. We all expect serious injury or illness to have physical effects that need a period of rehabilitation. But this longing to feel normal has more to do with the emotional part of life – the desire to get over the emotional fatigue that takes away the “spark” of daily life. It takes away the joy and hope that should be a part of each day. There is no reason to justify accepting low mood and depression as part of the “new normal.”
In the return to normalcy, simple actions can be powerful healing vehicles. The following actions will go a long way to curing depression and restoring the health of your immune system. Cancer treatment takes it out of you physically and emotionally; If you long to feel normal again, consider the following actions.
Return to Normalcy
Action 1 – Physical Exercise.
Physical exercise changes the brain’s chemistry. It increases the active level of important brain chemicals such as dopamine and serotonin. Serotonin is the happiness hormone. It regulates our mood swings and increases our feeling of well-being. Dopamine helps with mental alertness and clarity. The lack of dopamine causes foggy thinking and lack of focus and concentration.
Physical exercise is important to the immune system because it stimulates lymphatic circulation. Unlike the circulatory system, which has a pump (the heart) to circulate the blood, the lymph system is a “drainage” system which is dependent upon muscle constriction to keep the lymph and immune cells in circulation throughout the body.
Begin and maintain a daily physical exercise program. Exercise elevates your mood.
Action 2 – Omega-3 Fatty Acids.
Your brain needs a steady supply of omega-3 fatty acids to function properly. Omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids are called “essential” because the human body cannot make them. Omega-3s are involved in developing the nervous system. People who do not get enough omega-3s are at an increased risk of depression.
Your body needs to maintain a balanced 1:1 ratio of omega-6 and omega-3 fats. If your ratio of omega-6 to omega-3 is too high (above 3 to 1) you will probably have some of the following common symptoms: fatigue, poor concentration, sluggishness, sleep problems, and carbohydrate craving.
In his book, The Depression Cure, Stephen S. Ilardi, Ph.D, recommends adding a fish oil supplement to your diet. He states: that adding a fish oil supplement is potent in its ability to fight depression and keep it from coming back. “It’s a change that takes only a minute of your day, but it can change your life immeasurably for the better.”
Action 3 – Get Sunlight.
Sunlight stimulates the brain’s production of serotonin. As mentioned in the discussion of exercise, serotonin is known as the happiness hormone. Serotonin calms the brains defensive stress response – it has an antidepressant effect. It not only suppresses stress related emotions; it also boosts feelings of well-being.
Vitamin D is produced in the body by the action of sunlight on the skin. Vitamin D provides anticancer activity, especially against breast and colon cancer.
Action 4 – Social Support.
Many studies have shown that people with strong social support networks are relatively unlikely to become depressed. Researchers have found that simply having one supportive confidant – an emotionally close friend or family member – cuts the risk of depression in half following a painful event like treatment for cancer. Research on this issue is clear: when it comes to depression, relationships matter. Isolation is a stressful condition for humans; we are created to be in relationships. When we are deprived of relationships for just a few days our stress hormones escalate.
It is highly recommended that cancer patients and cancer survivors join cancer support groups. There is a strong tendency for a person to withdraw during and after treatment. Many survivors find that support groups offer a forum for them to share questions and topics about cancer that they find difficult discussing with friends and family members.
Action 5 – Choose Your Thoughts Carefully.
Choosing how you talk to yourself is so important to your health and recovery; therefore, I am repeating my comments from a previous post.
In his book, The Depression Cure, author Stephen Ilardi advises us to choose activities that keep us from negative ruminating. I like that word. It means to chew the cud, to chew again, over and over. Ilardi reminds us that we must stop our mind from ruminating on negative thoughts – because turning these thoughts over and over again in our mind causes depression.
We all have crazy thoughts that pop into our mind: hateful thoughts, angry thoughts, fearful thoughts, – thoughts of disappointments, thoughts of anxiety, and thoughts of betrayal. However, we all can choose the thoughts that we dwell on. Dwelling on a thought is synonymous to an individual’s private conversations with themselves that go on inside their head. We all begin to create these stories, or movies, in our head where we are the victim, or villain, or such. These are the thoughts we must not brood on and allow them to become emotions. Emotions that cause stress hormones to cascade throughout our body.
In his book, Deadly Emotions, Don Colbert, M.D. cautions: “As a physician, my strong admonition to you is this: learn to turn off stress.” Dr. Colbert warns us that a heart that is filled with pain is a heart that is stressed and often depressed.
The cure for stress causing fear, ultimately, is faith. Faith is believing in the promises of God. Faith is a choice.
Then what is it we’re supposed to think about? We are told, “fix your thoughts on what is true and honorable and right. Think about things that are pure and lovely and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise – meditate on things such as these.” ~Philippians 4:8
If negative thoughts start creeping in, recognize them and then cast them away. Do not dwell upon them.
Low mood and depression should not be accepted as a “new normal” – the aftermath of cancer treatment, or any treatment for a critical illness.
Your new normal can be even better than the old normal before the life-altering experience of cancer. Set this as your goal and resolve to take the steps to make it happen.