Symptoms of depression

Symptoms of depression, such as weight loss and tiredness, can be caused by your cancer or by cancer treatment. They are not always reliable signs of depression in people with cancer.

Discuss what might be causing your symptoms with your doctor or specialist nurse if you are unsure. They will be able to advise you. 


Common symptoms of depression can be things that you think or feel and things that you have.The things that you think or feel include: 

  • feeling sad, anxious or ‘empty’ all of the time
  • sleep problems - including waking early and difficulty getting to sleep
  • not being able to get out of bed in the morning
  • loss of interest or enjoyment in doing day to day things
  • loss of interest in seeing friends and family
  • feelings of guilt, hopelessness and worthlessness
  • weight loss or gain
  • loss of appetite
  • feeling tired and lacking in energy
  • difficulty concentrating, making decisions or remembering things
  • loss of interest in your appearance
  • feeling restless and irritable
  • wishing that death would come quickly or that life could be over now
  • having thoughts of killing yourself (suicide) and attempting suicide

You may be clinically depressed if:

  • you have 5 or more of these symptoms every day for longer than 2 weeks
  • symptoms are causing problems in your day to day life

Clinical depression is treatable, so do talk to your doctors and nurses.

Suicidal thoughts

Not everyone with cancer has suicidal thoughts. But it is important that we mention it for those few people who do.

What might lead to suicidal thoughts

Some people are more likely to think about taking their own life than others. This includes:

  • people with very advanced cancer
  • people who are in a lot of pain
  • people whose cancer has made them lose their independence

Passive suicide thoughts

You may have thoughts about wanting to die if your cancer and treatment becomes too much to cope with. You may wish that death would come quickly and your life would be over now.

Doctors call this having passive suicide thoughts. Although this is very distressing and you need to still seek medical help, it is different to actually planning to kill yourself (suicide).

Feeling suicidal

If you feel that life is not worth living anymore or you can see no way out of your situation you may think about killing yourself.

You must try to get medical help immediately if you feel like this or try to harm yourself in any way.

Your outlook on life is likely to be distorted when you are depressed. So you may not be seeing the true picture. Situations can look far more hopeless than they really are.

Things may not look so awful if you get the treatment that you need. You may find that you have more resources to cope with your situation.

Helping someone you think is suicidal

Sometimes people feel too sad and low to even think about getting help. But people around them may notice that they are acting strangely or hear them talking about ending their life.

If you know someone like this then you need to try to encourage them to get help. Consider contacting their GP if you are really worried about someone. The GP can’t give you any information about their patient without the patient's permission. But you can still tell the GP about your worries. It’s important not to ignore someone’s threat or mention of killing themselves.

Talking about suicide to someone who is thinking about killing themselves will not increase the chance of them carrying it out. In fact, it is more likely to actually help them. It shows them that you are concerned about their feelings. This can give them permission to talk about their fears and worries.

For many people this helps to give them back a feeling of control over their life.

Control of pain and cancer symptoms that are making you suicidal

Tell your doctor or nurse if you are thinking about killing yourself because you are in pain or suffering from other symptoms. They can do a lot to control the symptoms and side effects of cancer, especially when it comes to treating cancer pain.

Once your symptoms are under control, you may feel a lot better and your suicidal thoughts may disappear.

The most important thing is to seek professional help and talk to people who will know the best way to help you.

More information

Maudsley Learning, part of the South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust, has a set of cancer and mental wellbeing videos for people affected by cancer.

The videos have information and advice on what to do if a cancer diagnosis affects your mental health. They cover several topics, including breaking bad news, managing anxiety, common reactions to a diagnosis, and relationships.

Related links