What Depression can Learn from Cancer


Depression sucks. We’ve heard the reasons it exists and we often know our own. Bad genes, life stressors, neurotransmitter imbalance ..whatever. You just want to get better already!  The self-help you read on exercise therapy, mindfulness or eating healthy, points out how you’ve been doing it all wrong. The friends who have it all together and ask you to “snap out of it” “think positive” or “jump on a treadmill” just don’t get it.   Antidepressants, (if they don’t make you worse) may not always make you feel better. You could spend hours in psychotherapy hoping to understand why  me? Bottom line is its hard to make sense of the depressed mind, let alone treat it.

On the other hand, we’re relatively lucid when we discuss the character of cancer. Despite the gaps in the science, we largely know how to think about it. Cancer cells are misbehaving cells that multiply uncontrolled. They try to replace our normal cells & disrupt the function of our organs. The immune system fails to fight flaws in our own cells and the mayhem goes uninterrupted. When we do get diagnosed, we learn that the cancer can often be removed, or the  cells killed with chemo or radiation therapies. Often some normal tissue may have to be sacrificed to remove the cancer in its entirety -we more or less come to terms with that. Some of us at advanced stages of disease, can’t get rid of the cancer and must continue on therapies that keep cancer cells under control. At the back of all this, we’re very aware that the cancer although coming from my cells, is still “not me”. 

What if you could think about depression like you think about cancer? We can certainly draw parallels in the character of the two diseases. Depressive thoughts are to the mind, as cancer cells are to the body. Negative thoughts try to replace more desirable ones. The repetitive , rumination of negative thoughts spirals out of control much like cell division in cancer. Self-worth and self-esteem fail in the presence of negativity, much like organs fail to cancer. Ya ok, you see there’s something there.

Could we take some lessons from cancer then and apply them to understanding depression and forming some style of coping with it?

  1. Yes your “own” thoughts could be wrong: We are conditioned to trust our own thoughts. If my own mind says “I’m doomed” or “I’m worthless” or “this life isn’t worth living” then it must be true ! Challenge yourself to think for a moment that your brain could be sending you a bad message, a wrong signal or a “cancerous” thought. Yes it’s in your mind, but this thought or feeling may not be truly reflective of what is you!  The thought that may not be doing you good, may have to be interrupted and let go.
  2.  You can’t fight it, if you deny it:  Much like cancer or any other illness, you can’t treat depression without first acknowledging that you have it. Acknowledgement isn’t about saying “I should be happy, I hate to feel sad, I don’t want to be depressed!”  A better example of acknowledgement is,” I understand someone else can be happy and positive in circumstances lot worse than mine- they perhaps don’t have the condition I have. I suffer from depression and I am trying to feel better”
  3. Be kind to yourself: Largely, people find it easy to sympathize with cancer. They don’t sympathize as much with depression, because “It’s not like you’re dying or anything- you’re just feeling blue.” Your social withdrawal and inability to do enough for your relationships is certainly not helping. ‘You’ however know what you’re going through, so why not start with being kind to yourself and do it urgently and generously?
  4. Respect your limitations: Someone on chemotherapy certainly wouldn’t go swimming in murky waters, knowing they could catch an infection.  I’m not saying you should avoid all things challenging, just know that you will face more hurdles getting there than someone who doesn’t have your limitation, namely depression. A bungee jump to a different career or a new continent at 40 may be exciting for a friend or even for to the more optimistic version of yourself. It could however present a real risk of recurrence for someone living with depression. Choose your circumstances wisely when you can.
  5. Living with it may be a more realistic goal than curing it. We all want to not have cancer, certainly not stage IV cancer. While I certainly don’t want to discount the struggles of those facing metastatic cancer, there’s a comparison to be made with depression in the need to ‘live with’ the condition you’re facing. Seeing yourself as living with well-controlled depression is perhaps more realistic than imagining it’s gone. You certainly don’t want to, but you know you may have to face it again. Try and find ways to help minimize your symptoms. Surround yourself with supporting friends and family and make the most of life’s better moments.
  6. It may take giving up some of the good, to get rid of the bad. I make the most important point last. It may be hard to believe, but the same thinking habits that fuel your depression can be the ones that make you largely successful and may be the very traits you love about yourself. Let’s consider your need to excel, hold yourself to a high standard and deliver beyond what’s expected. It makes you the successful professional you are. An unexpected setback may have shatter this perfectionist self image. You’ve believed “I’m nothing if not perfect” and with the perfection tainted, your depressed self thinks “I’m nothing”. Consider next your ability to sit and mull over a problem, looking at it from multiple viewpoints for long hours. It makes you the great problem solver you are. When you’re depressed, there you are doing the same ruminating and repetitive thinking that now gets you nowhere. The reason we can’t nip the negative thoughts in our minds, is because deep down they may be rooted in very constant and positive aspects of our personalities; that which makes you “you”. Just as cancer surgery may involve getting rid of some good tissue with the bad, you may have to change or police these very habits that have served you well. You may not go from being a seriously disciplined to a carefree soul overnight, but you may question the merit of being harsh and disciplined if it only makes you depressed.

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