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Dealing With Depression as a Spouse of a Cancer Patient

Ian is a palliative care specialist at Fort Portal Referral Hospital, with over ten years of experience in clinical patient care.


Spouses are often the primary caregivers for cancer patients. The caregiving role means that they prioritize the health of their sick partner. Yet, at the same time, they may be dealing with illnesses like hypertension, or diabetes. This makes them prone to mental health problems, especially depression.

In this article, we explore how spouses of patients with chronic illnesses like cancer can deal with depression.

According to Bigatti S., et al. (2011), between 20% and 30% of spouses of patients with cancer suffer from mood disturbances including depression. They also suggest that this has a direct impact on the patient.

In their article Depression in husbands of breast cancer patients: relationships to coping and social support, partners who experience depressive symptoms are likely to be less supportive of the patient than those who are adjusting well. They add that patients with supportive spouses do better physically and emotionally.

This highlights how important the health of a spouse is, to the quality of life of the sick partner.

Despite this, however, a study from the University of Wisconsin shows that depressed spouses of cancer patients are 33% less likely to receive adequate treatment for depression.

Therefore, healthcare professionals need to take a keen interest in the physical and mental health of caregiving spouses. The patient’s quality of life may depend on it.

Recognizing Depression and its Effects

As a spouse caring for a sick partner, it is critical that you're able to recognize impending depression, and not dismiss any feelings of sadness as merely a part of the cancer experience. It is also important to understand that your mental health affects the well-being of the patient and possibly their treatment outcomes.

Litzelman, an assistant professor of human ecology, at the University of Wisconsin explains that spouses may feel that being depressed is part of the cancer experience, or may not even realize that help is necessary or available. This shouldn’t be the case.

Although the caregiving role can be overwhelming, caregivers have to take care of themselves to be able to care for their sick partner. Besides being able to care for your sick partner, other aspects of your life depend on you being in good mental and physical health. This may include caring for children or fulfilling obligations at work.

Being able to recognize depression is important for you as a caregiver. If you can identify it, then you can deal with it. According to the American Cancer Society, everyone experiences emotional ups and downs. But if you always feel down, have no energy, cry a lot, or you’re irritable most of the time, it may be a warning sign of depression.

Some of the common signs and symptoms of depression are listed below. You may not experience all these signs and symptoms. But having any one of them means you need to talk to someone about it.

Psychological Symptoms

  • Feeling sad most of the time
  • Feeling hopeless and helpless
  • Losing interest in the things that you should normally enjoy
  • Problems with sleep, being buried in deep thought frequently
  • Uncontrollable emotions
  • Feeling anxious or worried
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Physical Symptoms

  • Change in appetite which may cause weight loss or gain
  • Feeling exhausted
  • Lack of energy
  • Low sex drive
  • Problems with sleep like insomnia

How to Cope With Depression

Cancer is scary and overwhelming in many aspects. In fact, there is no single solution that can take away all the sad emotions associated with the cancer experience. However, if you are able to recognize the symptoms of depression, these simple tips can help you cope and minimize its potential effects.

Plan to do Things That You Enjoy

While your role as a caregiver is extremely important, your whole life shouldn’t just be about the patient or their illness.

  • Make an effort to do things that you enjoy.
  • Get involved with people.
  • Make yourself available for fun activities such as having lunch with a friend.
  • Exercise frequently to boost your physical and mental health.
  • Remember to nourish your body with healthy food.

Seek Support From Family and Friends

Open up and let your family and friends take responsibility for some less sensitive roles. For example, you can involve the family in planning meals and nursing the patient. This enables you to take some time off to rest and attend to your own needs. Don't feel guilty about taking a break from your role as a carer. Taking a break will help prevent and relieve burnout, which can cause depression.

Seek Medical Attention

Last but definitely not least important, seek medical help. Talk to a medical professional if you feel you are experiencing some of the symptoms of depression listed above. Don’t wait until you are at the breaking point. There is no shame in seeking medical attention for mental health problems.

Everyone experiences mental health problems once in a while. Avoid dismissing your feelings. Although it is important for you to be strong for your partner and children, remember that you’re not a machine. Also, remember that many other affairs of the family depend on you and your mental well-being.

How a Doctor or Mental Health Professional Can Help

Your healthcare providers can help you to cope and improve your experience of caring for your sick partner. Talk to your doctor, nurse, or palliative care specialist about how you feel.

Healthcare providers can do some of the following to help you address depression. They may do the following:

Encourage You to Take Care of Your Own Health Problems

Your doctor or nurse will encourage you to openly talk about your health concerns. They will attempt to establish a relationship in which you feel appreciated and cared for. It is important that there is trust between you and your doctor so that you can speak freely. Be ready to give elaborate answers to probing questions to enable your doctor to understand exactly what you are experiencing.

Diagnose Depression and Advise You About Treatment Options

Healthcare professionals are able to identify signs of depression as they interact with you. When you're comfortable enough to talk to your doctors about your health problems, it is easier for them to make a timely diagnosis of your depression and develop a plan to address it.

Through your interactions with your healthcare provider, they may be able to identify and make you aware that you have signs of depression. They may advise you on possible management options, including seeking support from a mental health specialist for appropriate treatment.

Provide Appropriate Support and Medical Treatment

Support can be as simple as being available to listen to your concerns as a spouse of a cancer patient. Your healthcare provider is unlikely to judge you or your situation. Expressing your concerns helps relieve some of the stress you may be experiencing. Accept and acknowledge these feelings and communicate them and open your mind to receiving support. If it is necessary, depending on your symptoms, your doctor may prescribe some medications called antidepressants.

Remind You That Your Health Is Equally Important.

As a spouse in a caregiver role, you need to understand that you are an integral part of the patient’s care team. The healthcare provider will remind you about taking care of your health because it has a direct effect on the well-being of the patient. They will remind you about taking your medication on time if you have a disease like diabetes or hypertension and encourage you to engage in stress-relieving activities. They may also be able to advise on nutrition and provide refill prescriptions for any medications that may be necessary for you.

This content is for informational purposes only and does not substitute for formal and individualized diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed medical professional. Do not stop or alter your current course of treatment. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.

© 2022 Ian Batanda

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