Distress in People With Cancer

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Do you need extra help for your distress?

Some people have a higher risk of serious distress; for example, if they:

  • Have had depression or other major mental health problems in the past
  • Have made a suicide attempt in the past
  • Suffer from other serious medical problems besides cancer
  • Have communication problems (such as a different language, trouble reading, or hearing problems)
  • Have some type of social or family problems
  • Have ever been physically or sexually abused
  • Are younger
  • Are female
  • Live alone
  • Have limited access to medical care
  • Have young children in the home
  • Lived with very high stress levels (even before the cancer)
  • Have ever abused alcohol or drugs
  • Have financial problems
  • Have spiritual or religious concerns
  • Have uncontrolled symptoms

If any of these are true for you, it’s more likely that you may need help from others – your cancer care team can refer you to the right people.

Both you and your cancer care team may also notice there are times when you are at risk for greater distress during the course of illness and treatment. Cancer is often said to be “like being on a roller coaster.” These times for more distress are often at points of change in the illness and treatment:

  • Finding a suspicious new symptom
  • During work-up and diagnosis
  • Waiting to start treatment
  • Changing treatment
  • Going home from the hospital
  • Finishing treatment
  • Going back to your cancer doctor for follow-up visits
  • Going back to a “normal” life after treatment
  • Cancer comes back
  • Treatment doesn’t work
  • Cancer gets worse or becomes advanced
  • Nearing the end of life
  • Going into hospice care

If your distress reaches moderate to severe levels at these times, you may need extra help.


Last Medical Review: 08/11/2014
Last Revised: 08/13/2014