When Depression Might Be a Good Thing

Depression and cancer seem almost inevitable, like the nausea and hair loss from chemotherapy. Indeed, some hospital oncology departments have therapists specially trained to help people facing the uncertainty, pain, and debilitation of their disease. But we assume that depression accompanies or follows the diagnosis of cancer, rather than acting as an early warning symptom.

However, sometimes that early warning symptom of depression is exactly what it is. An individual becomes depressed, the depression is explained as being caused by unresolved emotional and situational problems, the depression is treated, but the individual does not improve. And then, the individual has a sort of a stroke of luck. A physician who knows the individual suspects that maybe something more than depression is wrong with the patient.

Tests are done and it turns out that the individual has cancer. The cancer is successfully treated, and the individual learns the mysterious depression was related to, and perhaps caused by, chemicals that are released in the body by certain types of cancer. These chemicals, called cytokines, affect the brain and, in in some poorly understood way, brought about the depression. Once the cancer is eliminated these chemicals disappear, and with their disappearance, the depression vanishes.

The New York Times published just such a case in the Sunday magazine feature, “Diagnosis.” The author, Lisa Sanders, M.D., described a woman, a psychologist, who found…

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