Cancer and anxiety

If you have cancer, there will probably be times when you feel worried and afraid. As a matter of fact, 44% of people with cancer say that they feel anxious at times, and 23% say that they have a great deal of anxiety. Reasons for anxiety can range from the fear of having cancer-related symptoms like nausea and pain, to worrying how their illness will affect their work and family. Anxiety levels usually go up and down, depending on each person’s situation. Anxious feelings may be very strong after diagnosis, or while waiting for test results (see the article “Coping with the Anxiety of Waiting for Test Results”), before new treatments, or when you have side effects.

Being informed can ease fears

Once you learn more about your illness and what to expect from treatment, you may not feel as afraid. Don’t hesitate to ask questions, or to talk about any worries with your medical team. For some people, learning about cancer can be a comfort; for others, it might cause more anxiety. Try to decide in advance how much information you want to hear.

If you’re worried about pain, talk with your doctor. There are many medications and treatments that work well to relieve pain. Anxiety can make you more sensitive to pain, though – so if you’re feeling very anxious, it’s important to deal with those emotions.

Cancer treatments, or even the cancer itself, can also cause anxiety: For example, some tumors give off chemicals that can cause anxious feelings. And some medications used to treat cancer (such as corticosteroids), can also cause anxiety. If you have these symptoms, be sure to speak with your doctor.

Coping with cancer-related anxiety

To handle cancer-related anxiety, you can:

  • Seek support: Share your thoughts with family and friends, so that you feel less alone. Many hospitals offer cancer-related support groups, and there are also many online support groups for people with cancer.
  • Focus on today, not tomorrow: Each morning, think about what you need to do for the next 24 hours – not the next 24 days or the next 24 months. Live in the present, so you’re not stressed by the future “what if’s.”
  • Find help for the other stresses in your life: Hospital social workers, or organizations such as CancerCare (, can help you find ways to handle issues like finances and childcare.
  • Distract yourself: Get involved in any activity that holds your attention, such as watching TV or a movie, doing a craft, or reading.
  • Bring someone with you to medical appointments: A relative or friend can offer support, and help you to understand information from your medical team.
  • Practice relaxation techniques: Yoga, meditation and tai chi, for example, may lower your anxiety level by teaching you how to relax.
  • See a counselor who has experience in working with people who have cancer.

When to get help

When anxiety goes beyond the normal fears that come with a cancer diagnosis, it can cause symptoms such as:

  • Rapid heartbeat
  • Tightness in the throat or chest
  • Trouble swallowing
  • Rapid, shallow breathing, or being out of breath
  • Sweating
  • Trembling or shaking
  • Upset stomach, nausea or diarrhea
  • Trouble sleeping, or sleeping too much

If you have any of these symptoms for more than two weeks, or if you have trouble handling your daily activities or treatments, tell your medical team. They can find a professional to help you.

Types of anxiety disorders

There are several, more-serious types of anxiety that fall under the heading of anxiety disorders.

  • Adjustment disorder is when someone’s reaction to a problem is worse than one would expect, considering the circumstances. The person may also have a lot of trouble dealing with work, school, or relationships.
  • Generalized anxiety disorder is when someone feels anxious all the time, or has worries that aren’t realistic. For example, a person who has paid off her car loan may be afraid that the dealership will be sending someone to repossess her car.
  • Panic disorder causes attacks of extreme anxiety that can last from a few minutes to a few hours. If people with cancer have panic disorder, they’ve usually had a history of panic attacks or severe anxiety before getting cancer.

Treatments for anxiety

Anxiety disorders can be treated with therapy, medication, or a combination of both. A professional can help to choose the anti-anxiety medication that’s best suited to your symptoms. Speak with a member of your medical team for more information.


American Cancer Society. (2008). Anxiety and fear. Retrieved 7/1/08 from

National Cancer Institute. (2008). Anxiety disorder. Retrieved 7/1/08 from