Treatment of depression in patients with breast cancer: a critical review

Tumori. Sep-Oct 2013;99(5):623-33. doi: 10.1700/1377.15313.


Aims and background: To summarize current knowledge on psychopharmacological and psychotherapeutic options for patients with breast cancer and comorbid depression, starting from the psychiatric viewpoint. Issues on diagnostic boundaries of depression and outcome measures are raised.

Methods: We completed a literature review from the last 30 years (until March 2012) using PubMed by pairing the key words: 'breast cancer and depression treatment' (about 1431 works, including 207 reviews), 'breast cancer and antidepressants' (about 305 works, including 66 reviews), and in particular 'selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors and breast cancer' (38 works, including 10 reviews) and 'breast cancer and psychotherapy' (603 works, including 84 reviews). Papers in the English language were selected, including recent reviews.

Results: There is little evidence for the superiority of any one specific intervention with pharmacological options or psychotherapy. The heterogeneity of assessment criteria, the small number of subjects collected in systematic studies, the difficulty in adopting standardized outcome measures, and the limited numbers of available drugs with a favorable side effect profile are the main limitations that emerge from the literature. No conclusive findings are available on mid-term/long-term treatment strategies, or when depression is part of a bipolar disorder.

Conclusions: Further research is necessary to define the most appropriate approach to depression when it occurs in comorbidity with breast cancer. A more accurate definition of the clinical phenotypes of depression in the special population of patients with breast cancer is suggested as a key issue.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Antidepressive Agents / therapeutic use*
  • Antidepressive Agents, Second-Generation / therapeutic use
  • Anxiety / etiology
  • Anxiety / therapy
  • Breast Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy / methods
  • Comorbidity
  • Depression / drug therapy
  • Depression / etiology*
  • Depression / therapy*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Middle Aged
  • Psychotherapy / methods*
  • Psychotherapy / trends
  • Psychotherapy, Group / methods
  • Research Design
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors / therapeutic use
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / etiology
  • Sleep Initiation and Maintenance Disorders / therapy
  • Social Support
  • Treatment Outcome


  • Antidepressive Agents
  • Antidepressive Agents, Second-Generation
  • Serotonin Uptake Inhibitors