Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Treating Depression: A Vital Step in Cancer Recovery

With all of the stresses of today’s modern world, depression is unfortunately becoming a common household word for many people in this country and abroad. With the onset of the cold winter months, many people also struggle with seasonal depression, or “winter blues,” known as Seasonal Affective Disorder. Depression can be caused by any number of factors, such as chronic stress, inactivity, hormone or neurotransmitter imbalances, nutritional deficiencies, medication side effects, chronic inflammation, or lack of adequate sunshine exposure, among others.

Many cases of depression, however, are circumstantial, and equally devastating, such as dealing with a life threatening diagnosis like cancer. Unfortunately within the current climate of fear surrounding conventional oncology, depression is often not addressed adequately, if at all. The truth is that many health practitioners may unintentionally be darkening their patient’s outlook, simply by following standard protocols in conventional oncology.

But seeking treatment and therapy for life threatening diseases does not have to include heavy doses of sadness and fear – on the contrary, with support from a caring holistic health practitioner and guide, the path toward recovery can be a life changing experience for the better, even regardless of the clinical outcome. As an integrative doctor, I have had the privilege of witnessing this transformation in many patients, from anxiety and depression to love and empowerment, and each time I am truly inspired by the strength that comes from within when an individual is faced with such life changing circumstances.

A recent consensus from the Australian Nursing Federation (ANF) finds that many breast cancer patients are not being properly diagnosed for depression, leaving many to suffer from the far reaching impacts of emotional distress without professional help. According to the article, depression affects about 15% to 25% of cancer patients (I would wager that the rates are higher in the US).The devastating statistic here is that death rates are 25% higher in cancer patients who experience depression, and 39% higher in cancer patients who are diagnosed with depression.

Treating depression in cancer patients, without the use of potentially harmful anti-depression medication, is a crucial step to recovery.  Establishing appropriate emotional support protocols within conventional cancer care will have many far-reaching positive impacts on recovery and quality of life. In my practice, I have found that simple meditation practices to calm the mind can have a beneficial effect on overall emotional and physical well being.

In addition, there are a number of other activities I recommend for helping to alleviate stress and depression. In Traditional Chinese Medicine, the times of day emphasizing the heart channel are from 11am to 1pm. For patients with depression, I often recommend watching a comedy during this time of day, to strengthen the emotional heart and help foster a lighter mood. Drinking green tea daily has been shown to cut depression by almost half in many subjects, not to mention provide a regular dose of health boosting antioxidants and cancer fighting compounds as well. Regular exercise including yoga, has also been shown to relieve depression, in part by stimulating stress-busting endorphins to help keep your mood elevated and stable. A healthy diet full of inflammation fighting whole foods has also been linked to lower depression rates, mainly due to its many health promoting benefits.

Coping with stress and anxiety during an illness is challenging, but it is vitally important. Depression weakens the body by compromising the immune system, and higher cortisol levels (a hormone that suppresses immune cells) are found in those dealing with depression This is one reason why in holistic, integrative medicine, we treat not just the physical body, but psychological and emotional issues as well.

Overall, the most important thing to remember is not to give up hope or give in to despair, and realize that if you suffer from depression, no matter what the circumstances, you are not alone in your struggle. A vast number of support networks have formed both locally and globally, to help people connect with one another in the face of personal adversity. These networks may be some of the most powerful therapies of all, as the social bonds that form the basis of community are some of the best medicine we know. So don’t be afraid to reach out – there are many groups of people offering a hand to help you up.

Thank you for reading,
Dr. Isaac Eliaz

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