Depression and cancer

Being depressed is much more intense than feeling down or sad. Feeling sad now and then is part of life, but depression is a much stronger feeling.

Depression can affect your ability to cope with everyday things such as:

  • eating
  • sleeping
  • hygiene
  • social activities
  • work

Depression is a medical illness, like having a broken leg or a heart condition. It needs treatment.

It is not a condition that you can just shake off. This is very often difficult for people around you to understand. Unless someone has been depressed themselves, it is almost impossible for them to understand how it feels.

It’s important to remember that being depressed doesn't mean that you are weak.

Depression and cancer

Depression is said to be the least recognised symptom in people with cancer. It can be one of the hardest things for you and your family to cope with.

It’s completely understandable to have very strong feelings of sadness for some time after your diagnosis or during your treatment. But this is not the same as being depressed.

Many doctors are now better at diagnosing and treating depression in people with cancer. But we're still not sure exactly how common it is, and much more research needs to be done. 

After cancer treatment

Depression can happen soon after your cancer diagnosis. But it is also quite normal to become depressed after finishing your treatment. As one person told us:

"It wasn't until a long time afterwards that I realised the stress of my cancer had made me depressed and very tearful."

It might be that at the time, you put so much effort into getting over the diagnosis and getting through the treatment that you don’t always have a chance to think about it all. It isn't until everything is over that it hits you.

This can be difficult for other people to understand. Just when they think you should be getting back to normal, you may feel more down than ever. It may help to talk to a counsellor or psychologist. 


The important thing to know is that there is treatment for depression. Without treatment, the symptoms of depression may go on for a very long time, sometimes months or years.

But with the right treatment for depression, most people will feel better within a few weeks. So if you suspect you could be depressed, it’s best to speak to your doctor or nurse so that you can have treatment quickly.

  • Depression in adults: treatment and management

    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), published 29 June 2022

  • Mental health care in oncology. Contemporary perspective on the psychosocial burden of cancer and evidence-based interventions

    R Caruso and W Breitbart

    Epidemiology and psychiatric sciences, 2020. Volume 29, e 86

Last reviewed: 
03 Nov 2022
Next review due: 
03 Nov 2025

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