Anxiety and stress in cancer patients

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science

This page was updated on March 2, 2022.

Cancer is stressful. Whether you’re undergoing diagnostic tests, processing a diagnosis, currently in treatment or even in remission, the emotions caused by cancer may feel like too much at times. It’s normal for you and your family to feel sadness, anger and fear given the uncertainty. Add to that having to do things like learn new medical jargon, fit appointments into your schedule and deal with insurance—it’s no surprise your stress level may be challenged.

Cancer may also cause anxiety, a heightened sense of fear and dread. It’s possible to develop an anxiety disorder or experience a recurrence of an existing anxiety disorder when living with cancer.

Learning coping strategies and finding support are crucial to managing both stress and anxiety.

Six tips for coping with stress

Let your cancer care team be your first stop when dealing with the stress of cancer. They’ve worked with many others who’ve faced similar situations. They can listen and help you make a plan.

Sometimes unexpected things cause stress, while other stressors are more predictable. It helps to focus on what you can control. These tips may help make life more manageable:

  1. Reach out to others. If you’re not feeling well, whether physically or emotionally, ask family, friends and coworkers for help. People are often eager to lend a hand, but they don’t always know how. They often appreciate being asked, especially if you’re specific. For example, tasks may include running errands, preparing meals, picking up kids from school and driving you to appointments.
  2. Stick to a schedule. Use a calendar or planner to keep track of important appointments and activities. Try not to stuff too many activities into one day. Take it easy.
  3. Set new limits. You may have been able to go full throttle in every aspect of life before cancer, but your new normal may be different. Both cancer and cancer treatment may cause pain and fatigue that require rest for recovery. Don’t hesitate to cancel plans or take a step back from responsibilities at work or home if that’s what your body and emotions need.
  4. Reassess your to-do list. Make a list of tasks and rank them from most to least important. Focus on the activities at the top of your list instead of trying to check off every item. Then take it a step further by breaking down the must-dos into smaller actions. For example, instead of spending an entire afternoon cleaning the entire house, tackle one room per day.
  5. Research resources to help with bills. Connect with a social worker or financial advisor to find the best approach to handle medical and other bills.
  6. Engage in soothing activities. Choose activities that reduce stress levels, such as soaking in a warm bath, listening to soothing music through headphones, or doing gentle yoga that focuses on deep breathing.

Healthy habits also may improve your quality of life and lower stress. Prioritize:

  • Sleep
  • Healthy foods
  • Moderate exercise
  • Time spent outside

How to cope with anxiety

Anxiety may make coping with the stress of cancer more difficult. Nearly half of all cancer patients report some anxiety, and about a quarter say they feel a great deal of anxiety, according to the National Cancer Institute. It may be even worse for people who have experienced an anxiety disorder in the past, such as a generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, obsessive compulsive disorder or phobia.

Symptoms of anxiety disorders include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Increased heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Restlessness
  • Muscle tightness
  • Lightheaded, faint or dizzy feeling
  • Nausea
  • Irritability
  • Feeling like you’re having a heart attack
  • Being afraid you might be going crazy

Anxiety disorders may also be caused by medical issues associated with cancer. Tumors of the adrenal gland, pituitary gland, pancreas or thyroid all cause symptoms of anxiety and panic disorder. Cancers of the lung, brain and spinal cord also share some symptoms with anxiety. Taking certain medications, such as steroids, or withdrawing from medications, like opioids, may make you feel anxious, too.

If you’re experiencing anxiety symptoms, it’s important to speak with your cancer care team. They may help resolve medical issues that are causing symptoms of anxiety, or assess you for an anxiety disorder and get you on a path to treatment.

Resources that help include:

  • One-on-one counseling
  • Couple and family counseling
  • Crisis counseling
  • Group therapy
  • Cognitive behavior therapy
  • Relaxation training, such as hypnosis, meditation, guided imagery or biofeedback

Anti-anxiety medications are also effective in treating anxiety disorders. The behavioral health members of your cancer care team may connect you with a psychiatrist to discuss these treatment options.

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