Social Work Depression and Cancer
Mary Sormanti, Genevieve Mason
  • LAST REVIEWED: 29 September 2015
  • LAST MODIFIED: 29 September 2015
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195389678-0230


The experiences associated with being diagnosed and treated for cancer are generally acknowledged as distressing for individuals and those close to them. Prevalence, intensity (e.g., mild, moderate), impact, and types of distress (e.g., psychosocial, psychological, physical) vary across specific cancers, stage of disease, prognosis, and perhaps even assessment instrument. Prevalence rates of depression, for example, vary widely across studies, with a recent meta-analysis determining an average prevalence of 8–24 percent in individuals with cancer in nonpalliative settings. Nevertheless, this particular type of distress remains worthy of clinical and research attention, given its associations with increased suicidality and treatment nonadherence. Moreover, because many common symptoms of depression (e.g., fatigue, hopelessness) also can be attributable to cancer diagnosis and treatment, early assessment, diagnosis, and treatment of depression by trained professionals is an essential component of comprehensive psychosocial cancer care. Even those whose cancers have been successfully treated (i.e., survivors) may face considerable distress, including depression, as they navigate changes in identity, relationships, and priorities post–active treatment and face the possibility of disease relapse.

General Overviews

Within an extensive and rapidly growing literature about the psychological and psychosocial impact of disease in general and cancer specifically, materials that can provide readers with a comprehensive overview of a particular topic (i.e., depression and cancer) may be especially useful. Furthermore, although busy social workers may not typically turn to textbooks as sources of continuing education, the following sources, including three chapters and an entire textbook, do so. Artherholt and Fann 2012 and the National Cancer Institute provide succinct summaries about assessment and treatment of depression. Similarly, Chaturvedi and Uchitomi 2012 includes depression in an overview of common psychosocial disorders experienced by people with cancer, with attention to symptomatology. The chapters Ciaramella and Spiegel 2012 and Donovan, et al. 2012 discuss presentation and treatment of depression and anxiety, the latter focusing on the intersection of these disorders with pain. Holland, et al. 2013 offers a professional consensus statement about identification and treatment of distress in oncology settings. An entire textbook about depression and cancer, Kissane, et al. 2011 is likely indispensable in this subfield; specific chapters (e.g., culture and social disparities) may be especially interesting to social workers.

  • Artherholt, S. B., and J. R. Fann. 2012. Psychosocial care in cancer. Current Psychiatry Reports 14.1: 23–29.

    DOI: 10.1007/s11920-011-0246-7

    Brief review of important topics in psycho-oncology, including depression, and recommendations for screening, diagnosis, and treatment of psychological distress. Reviewed literature and authors’ analysis of their practice implications emphasize psychiatric perspectives, although these still do have utility for social workers.

  • Chaturvedi, S. K., and Y. Uchitomi. 2012. Psychosocial and psychiatric disorders. In Clinical psycho-oncology: An international perspective. Edited by L. Grassi and M. Riba, 55–69. Chichester, UK: John Wiley.

    DOI: 10.1002/9781119941101

    Concise summary of common psychosocial disorders, including depression, experienced by individuals diagnosed and treated for cancer. Attention to the distinctions and overlap between somatic (i.e., physical) and psychiatric (i.e., emotional) symptoms of depression, cancer, and cancer treatment is especially helpful, as is inclusion of tables to present key research findings.

  • Ciaramella, A., and D. Spiegel. 2012. Psychiatric disorders among cancer patients. In Neurobiology of psychiatric disorders. Vol. 106 of Handbook of clinical neurology. Edited by M. J. Aminoff, F. Boller, and D. F. Swaab, 557–572. Amsterdam: Elsevier.

    Describes anxiety, mood, and cognitive disorders experienced by cancer patients, their adverse effects on quality of life, treatment adherence, social support, and disease progression, and psychopharmacological and psychotherapeutic treatments with demonstrated effectiveness in reducing symptoms and enhancing coping.

  • Donovan, K. A., L. M. Thompson, and P. B. Jacobsen. 2012. Pain, depression, and anxiety in cancer. In Handbook of pain and palliative care: Biobehavioral approaches for the life course. Edited by R. J. Moore, 615–637. New York: Springer.

    Concise overview of to-date knowledge about depression and anxiety as those relate to pain in adults with cancer. With pain as the primary issue of interest, the chapter summarizes etiology, assessment, prevalence, and management of depression and anxiety in this population, and offers guidelines for addressing depression and anxiety in this population.

  • Holland, J. C., B. Andersen, W. S. Breitbart, et al. 2013. Distress management. Journal of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network 11.2: 190–209.

    An abbreviated consensus statement reflecting the authors’ perspectives about identification and treatment of psychosocial issues faced by individuals affected by cancer. Authors are members of the distress management panel of the National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN), which publishes the complete set of guidelines on its website ( Important resource for anyone working with individuals diagnosed with cancer or with their family members.

  • Kissane, D. W., M. Maj, and N. Sartorius, eds. 2011. Depression and cancer. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.

    Examines linkages between depression and cancer and summarizes data about epidemiology, pathogenesis, and identification of depression in those with cancer and ways to minimize its negative consequences. Chapters about the role of culture and social disparities, and psychological adaptation may be especially interesting to social workers.

  • National Cancer Institute. Depression—for health professionals (PDQ®). National Cancer Institute.

    Expert-reviewed information summary about assessment and treatment of depression in adults and children with cancer. Intended for professionals, a companion guide for patients and families is also available. Information is thorough and reflects the expertise of a social worker—one of the document’s lead reviewers.

back to top

Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.

How to Subscribe

Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.