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Breast Cancer is the most common cancer in women and can carry all sorts of stigmas around self-image and sexuality. In recent times treatment has advanced significantly and it is no longer the death sentence it once was. However, the downside is that the aggressiveness of the treatments can expose patients to quite extreme side-effects, including depression.

Dr Nici Zeeman, a general practitioner with a special interest in breast and thyroid health, explains why recognizing the impact of breast cancer and its treatment on long-term outcomes, like your mental health, is so important.

The Link Between Breast Cancer and Depression

There are many reasons why depressive symptoms are sometimes associated with a breast cancer diagnosis. There is the possible trauma of the diagnosis, the physiological side-effects of the various treatments (hormone fluctuations, fatigue, nausea, pain), the dramatic changes to your body following mastectomy and reconstruction as well as side effects from radiation and chemotherapy treatments such as weight gain or loss, for example.

Fear of death, disruption of life plans, changes in body image and self-esteem, changes in social role and lifestyle, and financial and legal concerns are all significant issues.

That being said, serious depression or anxiety is not experienced by everyone who is diagnosed with cancer.  Studies have shown that major depression affects approximately 25% of patients and the good news is it has recognizable symptoms that are treatable.

The role of mental health in treatment

The treatment journey as a patient should be looked at holistically by a team of doctors – we have a responsibility to not just treat your physical but to take into account your emotional well-being too.  Regular mental health check-ins should be standard.

Doctors should be proactive about screening for depression throughout treatment, and if there are signs of depression, then you should be guided towards suitable support systems – whether that is support groups, private therapy, and/or medication.

It is therefore so important for treating doctors to spend time with patients at the time of their diagnosis to inform them of the possible side effects of treatment but to also reassure them of support and treatment available.

What do the symptoms look like?

Our experience has shown that the following signs are indicators of potential depression, so if you are experiencing any of these, it is important to have a discussion about depression with your doctors:

  • A history of depression.
  • A weak social support system with little supportive human communication.
  • Evidence of persistent irrational beliefs or negative thinking regarding the diagnosis.
  • Cancer diagnosis causes major disruption or dysfunction in your life.

Further studies have suggested there is also a link between inappropriate coping mechanisms and higher levels of depression, anxiety, and fatigue. Some of these coping behaviors include avoidance, negative self-coping statements, a preoccupation with physical symptoms, and catastrophizing.

However, it has also been proven (via a study that examined coping strategies in 138 women with breast cancer) that patients with better coping skills – such as positive self-statements – tend to have lower levels of depressive and anxiety symptoms.

How can you cope?

There are some practical things that will help navigate the diagnosis and treatment while minimizing the risk of depression.

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  • Set realistic day-to-day goals. Be gentle with yourself and do not expect that you will be able to do everything you did in the past.
  • Human connection is important, especially if you are an older patient. If you are having to self-isolate, try to be in some form of contact with other people for at least an hour a day.
  • It is important that you have someone to talk to and confide in. Whether it’s a professional, friend, or family member.
  • Participation in positive events/actions can be very helpful. Whilst many of the normal entertainment outlets have been closed, playing music, painting and other activities that have positive emotional connotations are still possible.
  • Good nutrition is vital. A diet that is rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and lean protein will bolster the immune system and aid in your well-being.
  • Exercise is proven to reduce stress and ease depression. As exercise in restricted circumstances can be a little difficult – reach out to your friends, family (and your doctor) for some exercise routine ideas that you can possibly do at home.
  • Alcohol should be avoided as it is known to make depression worse and can interfere with antidepressant medicine.

It’s important to note, however, that not all of these will work for everyone and if you are showing signs of depression, it is essential that you speak to your doctor and get the medical help you need.

About the author

Dr Nici ZeemanDr Nici Zeeman is a general practitioner who has a special interest in breast health. She obtained her medical degree in 2001 at the University of Stellenbosch.

After gaining experience internationally. Dr Zeeman joined Apffelstaedt and Associates as a breast physician. Since then, she has been on multiple local and international courses on breast and thyroid health and imaging.

Read her full biography below.

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Dr. Nici Zeeman

Dr Nici Zeeman is a general practitioner who has a special interest in breast health. She obtained her medical degree in 2001 at the University of Stellenbosch. After completing her internship and community service years, she moved to Ireland in 2004 where she spent 7 years working in different medical fields. She has always had a keen interest in female health and upon returning to South Africa in 2011, she joined Apffelstaedt and Associates as a breast physician. Since then, she has been on multiple local and international courses on breast and thyroid health and imaging. She is a member of the Breast Interest Group of South Africa (BIGOSA) and the Cape Town Breast Cancer Forum and has been involved in and presented research studies on breast cancer outcomes and lifestyle management in breast cancer patients at a few of the annual conferences and meetings over the years. She is currently working full time at Apffelstaedt, Hoosain and Associates and sees patients for breast health screening, genetic counselling and thyroid health concerns. She is also a member of the multidisciplinary team responsible for the follow-up care of breast cancer patients.

The content in this editorial is for general information only and is not intended to provide medical or other professional advice. For more information on your medical condition and treatment options, speak to your healthcare professional.