Last year, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Two days later, I underwent five and a half hours of surgery. Fortunately, the tumor was removed and it was benign. On the day before my operation, my neurosurgeon went over everything she would be doing during the operation. She also explained, in detail, what I might expect during my recovery, including pain, follow-up procedures I might require and what I would need in terms of physical and occupational therapy to help me regain my balance and overcome dizziness. I was pleased with the time she spent explaining everything that might occur.
If you saw me now, you wouldn’t know I went through a major operation. But what you cannot see—and what my surgeon never mentioned as a potential aftereffect—is that I have been suffering from a form of depression known in medical circles as postsurgical traumatic stress syndrome (PSTSS). It really hit about three months after my operation. My symptoms were loss of appetite, anxiety, fear of recurrence and fatigue. I realized something was wrong and contacted the surgeon. She told me that what was done during the operation was not the cause but that the trauma of the diagnosis and realization of what I went through likely sparked it. She said it was not unusual and urged me to seek treatment from my family doctor. I did and have been helped by medication and by sessions I have had with a psychologist. What you should know about postsurgical depression…
• It is not unusual. It has long been known that 30% to 40% of people having coronary bypass surgery suffer some form of postsurgical depression. Studies also show that patients having brain surgery, bariatric surgery or cancer surgery are at higher risk for depression. Single or widowed patients and people who have a history of depression are more prone to postsurgical depression.
• The causes are varied. For some people, postsurgical depression is believed to be a side effect of having been under general anesthesia during the operation. Postsurgical pain, digestive disorders, reactions to medications or chemotherapy, inability to get restful sleep and/or having restricted movement also can be causes. The fear factor: A major cause of postsurgical depression is fear of having a recurrence, dying and/or becoming disabled. The fear factor can occur, as it did with me, many months or even years after the surgery!
• You don’t have to suffer alone. Before having any surgery, ask the surgeon about postsurgical depression. You may not get a lot of information, but you may be told some red flags to watch out for after the surgery. Obviously, any surgery will slow you down for a while, but if you are having excessively sad feelings, fear, lack of sleep and seeing little improvement in your mood, contact your surgeon and family doctor. Don’t hesitate to talk about your feelings with your doctors, family and friends. Medications (including antidepressants and antianxiety drugs) and medical professionals, such as psychologists or psychiatrists, can help. There are also many support groups, often sponsored by your local hospital, where you can talk with other people experiencing the same issues. Remember: You are not alone—millions of other people are likely experiencing similar feelings. And there is help!