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

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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.

This blog is part of the Carter Center - PsychCentral.com World Mental Health Day Blog Party on Oct. 10, 2012.

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