Post-Treatment Depression: What to Expect and What to Do
by Gayla Little

I would like to address the issue of post-treatment depression following extended chemo and radiation that I wrote while still in treatment.

“In my former profession” as a mental health counselor, I have worked with a lot of depressed people and I have also been able to observe my own emotional responses since the beginning of treatment and they hold true with what we know about depression in general.

We need a certain amount of energy to feel positive. Since radiation zaps our energy for some months to follow treatment, it would be normal to be depressed when the radiation energy drop hits. The good side of this is that we should start to feel better emotionally when we start to get our energy back. Unfortunately, from what I’ve heard, that post radiation energy drop can last a good long time. In the meantime, here are some tips for caregivers and survivors:

  • Hang in there. It is hard on you to be around a depressed person; but, your care and concern really does help.
  • Assist, but don’t force, the depressed person into activity. A depressed person wants to feel normal; but they can’t. Anything they can DO to take their mind of depression will help.
  • Structure helps, but remember that this is a person who REALLY has no energy. If you can help with cooking, the dishes, or laundry, you are an angel.
  • Hope from any direction will help. If the depressed person can be in a support group where there are long term survivors, it will help.
  • While we are in treatment we have a sense of control and accomplishment. Remember that helpless/hopeless feeling that followed diagnosis but before treatment started? Starting treatment lifted our spirits tremendously. Ending treatment takes away the structure, the activity, and the goal orientation. Anytime we are working on a goal and it passes, be it having a baby, a wedding, graduation, etc., there is a let down when it is over. The same is true for treatment. When the chemo, surgery, and radiation are past, we have to restructure our lives. That is why this is a good time to get into a support group; but, any work or volunteer work that we have the energy to do will be helpful as well.
  • When we are post-treatment, we feel vulnerable to the disease again. Anything we can do to regain that sense of control will help.
  • I am not a doctor and cannot speak to the helpfulness of medication in dealing with post treatment depression. There are now, however, some very good antidepressants available that are not addictive. You may want to discuss these with your doctor.
  • Always try to remember that the depression should resolve itself with time and the return of physical energy. If it doesn’t, be sure to consult your doctor.

I want to add that these questions have been very good for me. I have read about and denied that these emotional responses were going to happen at every stage of my treatment and then have been frustrated as I watched myself go through them 🙂 When I was on taxotere, I learned quickly that I was going to be depressed every Tuesday because that was my low energy day. It helped on Tuesdays to remember that Wednesday was coming and I would have hope again.

My husband and I had an initial discussion of the inevitability of post- treatment depression and how we were going to prepare for it as a family. We also discussed it with the kids.

I hope this has been helpful. The knowledge that my occasional bouts with depression are temporary is helpful while the depression is going on even though it is frustrating to go through it.