A new study suggests that in some people depression may be an early warning sign of cancer, appearing long before other obvious symptoms occur. Here's what you need to know. - Colette Bouchez
If a new study proves to be right, the first line of defense for patients suffering with depression may not be that all-too-common prescription for an antidepressant, but instead a medical workup designed to hunt down hidden tumors.
That's the interesting premise just published in a study on line in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science. Here, neuroscientists from the University of Chicago offer evidence that tumors may, in fact, be responsible for at least some of the biochemical changes that kick off bouts of depression – and that this may occur long before there is any obvious signs that the tumor itself even exists.
“By using this animal model of cancer we were able to isolate just the physiological effects of the tumors from the psychological effects that you get in human studies," said Leah Pyter , a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, who led the study and was recently quoted in The Scientist.com.
It has long been known that cancer patients, along with others who suffer from chronic diseases, are more prone to depressive behavior. For the most part, however, doctors believed this was largely due to the emotional response to the diagnosis, as well as a biochemical stress reaction to the disease itself. Indeed, if you, or someone you love has ever undergone cancer treatment, then you already know how stressful both the diagnosis, and sometimes even the treatments can be.
Pyter and her group now believe that based on her research, the biochemical changes caused by the tumor itself could be strong enough to induce depression.
How The Study Was Conducted
To arrive at this conclusions Pyter and her team injected a chemical known to cause mammary tumors into a group of rats. They then monitored these rats, alongside a group of healthy rodents, as they participated in activities designed to reveal clinical signs of depression.
The result: The rats with the tumor cells demonstrated depressive symptoms in more than one situation – and they did so long before they had any telltale signs of cancer.
Researchers believe this is a strong indication that the depression was incited by biochemical changes stemming directly from the tumor cells. What is less clear, however, is what those changes entail.
One theory suggests the answer is rooted in cytokines - immune cells that, ironically, help fight disease. But cytokines have also been known to cause behavioral changes in response to certain bacterial infections, as well as brain trauma. What's more these changes appear to unfold in the same area of the brain linked to depression.
Pyter says all the rats in her study that were injected with the tumor cells showed an increase in cytokine activity, giving further rise to speculation therein lies the link to depression.
Experts say this idea may hold special significance for patients undergoing chemotherapy since many of the drugs used are, in fact, cytokine-based treatments.
Breast Cancer and Anti Depressant Medications
While clearly the new research has the potential to impact all cancer patients , perhaps it's greatest significance is for women at high risk for breast cancer. Why?
For more than two decades scientists have debated links between an increased incidence of breast cancer and the use of certain antidepressant medications, particularly those known as SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors). While the findings are hardly conclusive in either direction, the new research could add another dimension to the debate - with two new questions coming to the forefront.
First: Could the studies which showed a link between the use of SSRIs and an increased risk of breast cancer really have provided us with the first glimpse at the possibility that some women diagnosed with depression may indeed be harboring undiagnosed tumor cells?
Second: If in fact, SSRIs really do increase the risk of tumor growth, should we be first ruling out cancer in all patients who are diagnosed with depression before doling out prescriptions for these, or any other antidepressant medications ?
At least for the moment, both questions remain unanswered.
What This Research Means To You
Certainly, not everyone who is diagnosed with depression develops cancer. Depression is a disease on it's own and experts agree that in most people it is not likely to ever be a sign of a hidden cancer.
That said, if you are diagnosed with depression, there may be a common sense lesson here worth noting: If your family or personal health history indicates you are at increased risk for cancer, particularly breast cancer, and that same history does not indicate an increased risk for depression, it might be wise to talk to your doctor about the need for certain advanced cancer screenings, and to have them either in conjunction with the use of antidepressant medications, or perhaps even before you start taking the medication.
The Really Good News: If , in fact, it turns out that depression is the very earliest marker for cancer in some people, then the possibility of catching this disease early enough to effect a complete cure is now a whole lot greater. And that is indeed, something to smile about.
Copyright by Colette Bouchez 2009 - All Rights Reserved. In addition to US Copyright, the text of this RedDressDiary article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 License. All formatting and style elements of this page are not available under this license, and Colette Bouchez retains all rights in those elements.