Cancer Education Featured

Anxiety and cancer

Man pondering

Hearing about a diagnosis of cancer can sometimes make people feel scared, worried, nervous and panicked. You may have many questions and/or be given a lot of information at one time, which can be overwhelming for some people. For many people the passage of time will allow them to process the information given, and the intense feeling of panic should improve. If you continue to have intense feelings of panic and your anxiety gets worse and starts to take over your thoughts and daily life, you should speak to a member of your healthcare team who can help you find out how you can get help to make you feel better.

Is anxiety normal?

Anxiety is a normal part of life. It is like an early warning system for life challenges. At certain points these feelings may get worse. Most people feel better after days or weeks and do not suffer from an anxiety disorder.

What can cause anxiety?

Anxiety or nervousness can be caused by things like:

  • Waiting for test results
  • Being told that you have cancer
  • Having cancer treatments
  • Having side effects from treatment
  • Cancer treatments not working

Different people will experience anxiety differently. Anxiety can get better or worse at different times and can be a side effect of chemotherapy, hormonal therapies, steroids and pain medications.

What are the symptoms of anxiety?

  • If you have anxiety you may feel tense, worried, irritable, uneasy or fearful and panicked
  • You may have trouble sleeping or have lots of nightmares
  • You may feel restless or agitated
  • You may have upset stomach, diarrhea, increased sweating, nausea and vomiting, restlessness, muscle tension and headaches
  • You may have obsessive thinking and/or ritualistic behaviors that take up significant amount of time (eg. hand washing or checking)

How do you know if you have acute anxiety or if you have an anxiety disorder?

An anxiety disorder is different from anxiety. An anxiety disorder is diagnosed when symptoms cause severe distress that lasts for weeks or more. People who have anxiety disorders may find it difficult to function on a day to day basis, make decisions, concentrate and be organized. They can also experience sudden feelings of fear and anxiety with physical symptoms like racing heart rate and shortness of breath which are known as panic attacks.

What can be done to help your anxiety?

There are many things you can do to help with your anxiety. Some of these include:

  • Talk with someone you trust
  • Write down your thoughts or talk with other people who are experiencing something similar
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Sleep is essential, make sure your getting enough of it
  • Exercise
  • Try and steer clear of alcohol and caffeinated drinks
  • Spend time with people who make you happy
  • Try relaxation techniques or complementary therapies such as acupuncture, guided imagery, massage, meditation and yoga

What can be done to treat your anxiety?

There are numerous ways to treat your anxiety. The best thing to do is talk to a doctor who can tell you about the best treatment for you anxiety. Some of the different ways anxiety is treated include:

  • Behavioral therapy
  • Counseling (talking to someone about your concerns)
  • Medications (such as sedatives and or anti-depressants)

Bottom Line

Anxiety is a normal experience that many people go through during cancer treatment. If your anxiety gets worse talk to your healthcare team. They can help you find someone to talk to or give you medicine that can help.

Compiled by Giovanni Poppenpoel for Patient and Family Education, Odette Cancer Centre. Additional resources on anxiety can be found at the Patient Education and Research Learning Centre (PEARL) in T wing, first floor, Odette Cancer Centre or by emailing or calling 416-480-4534.

About the author

Patient & Family Education, Cancer

Blog posts from Patient & Family Education team at Sunnybrook’s Odette Cancer Centre. Visit the Patient & Family Education website for more resources, workshops and information.

Have a question about this post? Get in touch.