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At our National Cancer Information Center trained Cancer Information Specialists can answer questions 24 hours a day, every day of the year to empower you with accurate, up-to-date information to help you make educated health decisions. We connect patients, caregivers, and family members with valuable services and resources.
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Anxiety means feeling uncomfortable, worried, or scared about a real or possible situation. It's important to recognize anxiety and take steps to manage it or prevent it from getting worse.
In general, anxiety is a common problem for patients with a cancer diagnosis. At different times during treatment and recovery, cancer patients and their family and caregivers may feel fearful and anxious. Simply finding a lump or possible other sign or symptom of cancer can cause anxiety and fear, along with finding out that they have cancer or that the cancer has come back. Fear of treatment, doctor visits, and tests might also cause apprehension (the feeling that something bad is going to happen).
It’s normal to feel afraid when you’re sick. People may be afraid of uncontrolled pain, dying, or what happens after death, including what might happen to loved ones. And, again, these same feelings may be experienced by family members and friends. Signs and symptoms of anxiety include:
Cancer patients and caregivers might have signs and symptoms of anxiety. The signs and symptoms might be more serious if they happen most of the day, nearly every day, and they are interfering with daily activities. In these cases, a referral for mental health evaluation could be helpful. Keep in mind that sometimes, despite having all the symptoms, a person may deny having these feelings. But if they’re willing to admit that they feel distressed or uncomfortable, therapy can often help.
Panic attacks can be an alarming symptom of anxiety. Panic attacks happen very suddenly and often reach their worst within about 10 minutes. The person may seem fine between attacks, but is usually very afraid that they will happen again.
*If a person is having any of the first 5 symptoms (marked with *), it can mean an urgent or life-threatening condition. Call 911 or the doctor right away if someone unexpectedly has any of these. These symptoms also can be signs of other, more serious problems such as shock, heart attack, blood chemistry imbalance, collapsed lung, allergic reaction, or others. It’s not safe to assume that they are panic-related until diagnosed by a doctor.
If the person has had panic attacks in the past, and it happens again exactly like it did before, they can often recognize it as a panic attack.
If the person recovers completely within a few minutes and has no more symptoms, it’s more likely to have been a panic attack. If panic attacks are diagnosed by a doctor, brief therapy and medicines have been shown to be helpful.
The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
Dahlin C. Anxiety. In Camp-Sorrell D, Hawkins RA. Clinical Manual for the Oncology Advanced Practice Nurse. 3rd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2014; 1383-1390.
Hammelef KJ. Anxiety. In Brown CG (ed.). A Guide to Oncology Symptom Management. 2nd ed. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society. 2015; 55-76.
Inhestern L, Beierlein V, Bultmann JC, Möller B, Romer G, Koch U, Bergelt C. Anxiety and depression in working-age cancer survivors: A register-based study. BioMed Central. 2017;17(1):347.
Mehta RD, Roth AJ. Psychiatric Considerations in the Oncology Setting. CA Cancer J Clin. 2015;65:300-314.
National Institute of Mental Health. Anxiety Disorders. Accessed at https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/topics/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml on January 31, 2020.
Oncology Nursing Society (ONS). Symptom Interventions: Anxiety. Accessed at https://www.ons.org/pep/anxiety on January 31, 2020.
Pitman A, Suleman S, Hyde N, Hodgkiss A. Depression and anxiety in patients with cancer. British Medical Journal. 2018;361:k14-15.
Last Revised: February 1, 2020
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