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Cause for Concern: Shattering the Stigma of Depression and Breast Cancer

and Rebecca Palpant Shimkets

I blog for World Mental Health Day

Rebecca Palpant Shimkets is assistant director for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism at The Carter Center. This blog is part of the Carter Center – PsychCentral.com World Mental Health Day Blog Party on Oct. 10, 2012.

The voices of millions will join together this month for breast cancer awareness in walks and runs while pink ribbons are proudly displayed on cars, pins, and airplanes. The walls of secrecy and shame that surrounded breast cancer patients and survivors until recently are toppling with increased public understanding and advances in treatments.

Sadly, for too many cancer patients and survivors, the secrecy and shame felt instead is associated with the darkness of clinical depression that they experience during treatment or in the months and years post-treatment.

The fact that clinical depression and cancer can be interconnected is not discussed enough. As a cancer survivor, I had to learn this the hard way, through my own lived experience. Although it wasn’t breast cancer, I had to walk through days and months of reflection on the pain and suffering experienced during treatment and seek answers for the questions that bubbled to the surface about the meaning of my existence.

Depression knocked at my door as cancer exited.

In these years post-treatment, I have found that I am not alone in this experience. Approximately 15-25 percent of cancer patients will experience co-morbid depression, according to studies cited by the National Cancer Institute.

I have found many similar stories over a cup of coffee with a friend or while meeting with mental health colleagues who treat patients. Acknowledgment of depression is made in hushed tones, much like breast cancer once was.

Perhaps it is because society fully expects one to open champagne and celebrate when progress in cancer treatment is made or a clean bill of health is given. The ultimate expectation is that one will step immediately back into daily life with a new vigor and appreciation for each day. For many, however, their minds and bodies say, “Not so fast!”

The good news is that depression is highly treatable and there can be a renewed passion for life and a deeper sense of meaning as the symptoms of depression are addressed and overall wellness becomes the focus.

Today, October 10, is World Mental Health Day. It is my hope that today, the cancer and mental health communities can join hands and find new ways to address clinical depression in patients and survivors.

Groups like the Cancer Support Community, and its affiliates, and www.cancercare.org are continuing to break new ground in treating the whole person—both mentally and physically—and focusing on wellness. These practices should be replicated in health care institutions throughout the country.

Together, we can take the lessons learned from fighting the stigma of breast cancer and make progress in shattering the silence and shame that still surround depression.

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  • 1

    World Mental Health Day Blog Party, October 10, 2012 | World Mental Health Day on October 10, 2012 at 11:12 am

    […] Cause for Concern: Shattering the Stigma of Depression and Breast Cancer Bridging the gap between cancer and mental health by The Carter Center and Rebecca Palpant Shimkets […]

  • 2

    Tobesograteful on October 10, 2012 at 7:38 pm

    After my breast cancer diagnosis resulting in a lumpectomy and then a full mastectomy I experienced more fear than depression and then I realized that fear and depression can only contribute to the situation. I straightened up my diet–ate more alkaline foods and omitted all sugar from my diet. I also take many immune strengthening supplements. I decided to take better care of myself and not just try to take care of everyone else. I only hang out with positive people!!

  • 3

    Editor on October 12, 2012 at 5:32 pm

    Reblogged this on Journeying Beyond Breast Cancer and commented:
    Depression knocked at my door as cancer exited.

  • 4

    The Savvy Sister on October 12, 2012 at 7:30 pm

    @ tobesograteful: Good job for you! many people don’t have the resources and knowledge they need to get themselves out of that rut. You’re right about the fear and depression. It produces acidic hormones (cortisol)that creates an environment that cancer loves.

    I hope many women see your comment! Thanks for posting!

  • 5

    Facing Cancer Together on October 13, 2012 at 11:05 am

    It was a shock to experience feelings of depression during and after my treatment considering I’d always been a positive, naturally optimistic person. A part of me was aware of that cancer was playing a big role in my constant crying – but another part was simply lost in the misery.

    It’s good to have these discussions. I also blogged about this at my FacingCancer.ca Bumpyboobs blog. Thanks for raising your voice and continuing this conversation. ~Catherine

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