Published online by Cambridge University Press: 29 April 2003
Objective: Significant levels of depressive symptoms are an impediment to adjustment and affect greater than one-third of people with cancer. The clinical diagnosis of major depression is estimated to occur in 25%. Depression is dramatically underrecognized by oncologists and oncology nurses, and as a result, often undertreated. Clinical experience suggests that antidepressants of virtually all types are well tolerated and potentially efficacious. There is, however, a lack of an evidence base for the use of antidepressants in cancer patients.
Methods: We undertook an open-label pilot study using citalopram in 30 cancer patients who reported a high level of depressive symptoms on the Zung Self-Rating Depression Scale (ZSDS). In addition to the ZSDS, eligible patients completed a series of visual analog scales for pain, depression, and sleep disturbance; the Functional Assessment of Cancer Therapy-General Module; and the Purposelessness, Understimulation, and Boredom Scale developed by the research team. Patients began a 2-month course of therapy with citalopram 20 mg, increasing to 40 mg at the end of the fourth week if the patient was in the same range of depressive symptoms as measured by the ZSDS.
Results: Twenty-one of 30 patients completed the protocol. The average age of the sample was 57.32 years (SD = 12.6) and was comprised of 11 women (52.4%) and 10 men (47.6%). Depressive symptoms decreased and quality of life improved during the 8-week treatment period. Of special interest was the rate of improvement in boredom, and using the total boredom score of the PUB, significant improvement compared to baseline was seen in weeks 6 (F = 5.266, p < .05) and 8 (F = 9.248, p < .01).
Significance of results: Overall, the positive findings suggest the need for a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial of citalopram in cancer patients. Regarding the interplay of boredom and depression, the relationship between improvements in depressive symptoms and boredom is complex. This is illustrated by the way in which the different elements respond to antidepressant treatment. Depression began to improve almost immediately upon initiation of treatment whereas improvement in boredom does not become evident until week 6.