Managing cancer-related anxiety

Hester Hill Schnipper, LICSW, OSW-C Program Manager Emeritus, Oncology, Social Work

OCTOBER 08, 2019

Male cancer patient stressed over diagnosis

Anxiety inevitably accompanies a cancer diagnosis. When first hearing the words, almost all of us assume that we have just been condemned to death. It can be difficult, after the first sentence is delivered, to continue to listen to the rest of the doctor's presentation. I remember hearing something like: "I am so sorry, but you have breast cancer," and then retreating into numbness. I remember watching the surgeon's mouth open and close in speech and hearing absolutely nothing that she said. Have you watched fish in an aquarium? Without meaning any insult to the surgeon, it was that kind of observation: mouth moving and no sound.

In all honesty, I would be concerned about anyone who denied ever feeling anxious or scared or worried about their cancer. Healthy denial is a good thing, but we all know, too well, that cancer does not always go the way that we hope it will.

Anxiety inevitably accompanies cancer. It is predictably intense right after diagnosis, when preparing for surgery or chemotherapy or radiation, when treatment ends, and if cancer recurs or progresses. Many people also experience increased anxiety before doctors' appointments or scheduled tests like mammograms or scans or colonoscopies. I know a number of people, who are doing very well years after cancer, who immediately are overwhelmed by anxiety whenever they have a physical problem. Even a sore throat results in panic as they wonder if there is a cancer-related reason.

Most people find ways to manage this anxiety without it overtaking their lives. How do you know if your anxiety falls in the "unpleasant but normal" range or whether medication would be helpful? People who are already anxious are especially vulnerable to having additional trouble after cancer. If you commonly are a worrier, it is likely that a cancer diagnosis will increase your general level of concerns.

If any of the following describe your situation, you should speak with your doctor about the possibility of medication. There is no shame in this. It is not evidence of being weak-willed or short of character. It actually is quite the opposite, and takes self-awareness, honesty and some courage to tell your doctor that you are struggling. There are a number of possible meds that will almost certainly improve your quality of life and enable you to manage these stressful months more easily.

Do you need to seek help for cancer anxiety?

Please speak with your doctor if any of these circumstances are true for you:

  • Anxiety gets in the way of your daily life. You find it difficult to sustain your usual routines or obligations.
  • You aren't sleeping well. Particularly if you awaken in the middle of the night and find it hard to get back to sleep or experience your mind and heart racing, you likely could use some chemical assistance. We all know that we have to sleep!
  • You often can't control your fears. Your mind races or you ruminate on dire possibilities or sadness.
  • You have panic attacks, even once.
  • People who know you well have commented on your mood.
  • Your life feels out of control.

Help is available, and all you have to do is acknowledge your need. Yes, this can be hard to do, but living under the strain of anxiety is even harder.

Has cancer-related anxiety been an issue for you? Share your story

Above content provided by Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. For advice about your medical care, consult your doctor.