Chemotherapy Caregiving and Depression: How to Help Yourself

By Susan Amoruso Jara
Reviewed by Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

It’s not always easy to stay upbeat when caring for a loved one who’s going through chemotherapy. This is an emotional time for both of you, and you’re bound to have down days. But if those days start coming with more frequency or interfering with your daily life, you may be sliding into depression—and it wouldn’t be unusual: 40% to 70% of family caregivers have clinically significant symptoms of depression, according to the National Family Caregivers Association, and 25% to 50% of those caregivers meet the diagnostic criteria for major depression.

If you’re concerned you may be experiencing more than passing sadness, take a moment to learn how to recognize the warning signs of depression—and start safeguarding yourself today.

Spotting the signs of depression
How can you tell whether it’s a down day or mild depression? While the type and degree of depression symptoms vary from person to person, the following emotional and physical red flags warrant a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Your depression interferes with daily activities, such as concentrating at work or completing chores around the house.
  • You’re experiencing persistent physical symptoms, such as headaches, digestive disorders and heart palpatations.
  • You have a running script of negative voices in your head, saying things like, “I’m not good enough” or “I’ll never be successful.”
  • You have ongoing feelings of hopelessness or helplessness, decreased concentration and difficulty remembering or making decisions.
  • You have decreased energy and fatigue; you awaken early, oversleep, or have difficulty sleeping.
  • You’ve tried relaxation or positive-thinking strategies, and nothing seems to be helping.

Overcoming your depression
Depression tends to make basic tasks, such as paying the bills and doing laundry, seem like herculean hurdles. So how will you possibly deal with chemotherapy-caregiving responsibilities? Take these steps to start feeling better and get the help you need:

Don’t delay treatment. If you can’t shake feelings of depression, ask your primary care physician for a referral to a mental health professional, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist, who can help you get proper treatment.

Exercise. Do your favorite aerobic exercise for at least 30 minutes, three to five times per week. People who suffered from mild to moderate depression and participated in moderately intense exercise—such as walking on a treadmill or riding a stationary bike—reduced their symptoms by nearly half, according to a study published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

Set realistic goals for yourself. Research shows that depression can sap your motivation, making it difficult to go to work, go out with friends or even clean the house. Now isn’t the time to take on too much—you’re already stretched thin between work, family, household and caregiving duties. Start small. Prioritize what’s most important, and then tackle one task at a time.

Don’t expect immediate results.
Treatment takes time. Your mood will get better gradually—and often your sleep and appetite will improve first. Try to stay patient, and instead of thinking, “When will I finally be happy?” think, “I’m doing the best I can, day by day.” 

Stay connected. Don’t isolate yourself or be afraid to lean on your loved ones. In a Case Western Reserve University study, people who recovered from depression had higher levels of emotional support from family and friends. Consider joining a support group for people with depression; the National Alliance on Mental Illness (nami.org) is a great resource for finding a group near you.

Think positive. Negativity is a major part of depression. Do your best is to stay upbeat and steer your thoughts away from a negative path. Research published in the Western Journal of Nursing suggests early suppression of negative thoughts can keep people from developing full-blown depression. Every time you have a negative thought, try to quickly replace it with something positive. It can be as simple as saying, “I can do this.”

Published March 2014

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