Seasonal Affective Disorder Blog

Seasonal Affective Disorder: How a Change in Mood Can Affect Your Cancer Journey

  • Treatment can relieve SAD symptoms

    A cancer diagnosis is a major adjustment. The disease and its treatments can take both a physical and an emotional toll.

    “People who have cancer, or any major medical illness, are more susceptible to depression and mood changes,” notes psychiatrist Nithya Cherukuru, MD, of Fox Chase Cancer Center.

    For some people, having cancer may also add to the impact of seasonal affective disorder (SAD).

    What is SAD?

    If your mood drops in fall and winter and rises again in spring, you could have SAD—a type of depression. SAD is thought to be linked to the effects of winter’s shorter daylight hours on our circadian rhythms (the body’s 24-hour internal clock) or on the production of the hormone melatonin and the neurotransmitter serotonin, which help regulate sleep and mood.

    No matter what the cause, SAD can interfere with your quality of life, and, if left untreated, it could have an impact on your cancer care.

    At its worst, the condition can interfere with daily routines and your cancer treatments. For instance, someone with SAD might feel exhausted and depressed, which might make it hard to leave the house for appointments.

    “Even your will to get better can be affected by mood or depression, which, in turn, can affect the way that you approach treatment,” Dr. Cherukuru says.

    At the same time, having cancer may make it harder to manage seasonal affective disorder. For instance, says Dr. Cherukuru, time spent at medical appointments might mean you get outside less often—and get less sunlight.

    Warning signs

    Most signs and symptoms of SAD mimic those of major depression (non-seasonal depression). They include:

    • Feelings of hopelessness
    • Fatigue
    • Loss of interest or pleasure in activities and friendships you used to enjoy

    “The symptoms that are more specific to seasonal affective disorder are that you’re sleeping more, eating more, and possibly gaining weight,” Dr. Cherukuru says.

    Shedding light on healing

    Treatment helps most people with SAD feel better.

    “If you feel like you may be experiencing seasonal affective disorder or any impairment in function or a change in your mood, talk to a healthcare provider,” Dr. Cherukuru says.

    If you have SAD, your doctor might recommend light therapy—sitting in front of a special light box for 30 to 40 minutes every morning. Light therapy helps compensate for the lack of winter light, and it can help boost your mood and energy levels.

    Some people also benefit from anti-depressant medications, counseling (talk therapy), or both.

    “We have a great team and a lot of support here at Fox Chase,” Dr. Cherukuru says. “And we work collaboratively together to help you heal.”

    In addition to potentially prescribing light therapy or medications, your provider may suggest that you:

    • Get more natural light.

    Try to spend a few minutes a day outside, ideally in the morning.

    • Take a walk.

    Exercise is a natural mood booster. Ask your healthcare team what types and amounts of activity are right for you.

    • Reach out to your support system.

    Maybe that’s a loved one or a trusted friend. “Let them know you tend to struggle around this time,” Dr. Cherukuru says. “That way they know to check in a little bit more.”

    Prioritize your well-being

    Coping with cancer can be hard, but you don’t have to do it alone. If your mental well-being could use a boost, ask your provider for the help you deserve.

    The mental health team at Fox Chase can help people cope with mental health challenges such as SAD, depression, and cancer-related stress. We offer treatment and support to cancer patients at every stage of their journey. Call 215.214.3940 to get started or request an appointment online.