How do you know when your distress level is normal or more serious?

This question can be hard to answer because some distress is “normal” (or expected) when you have cancer. But certain signs and symptoms can warn you that your distress level is too high and is becoming serious. Some of these are:

  • Feeling overwhelmed to the point of panic
  • Being overcome by a sense of dread
  • Feeling so sad that you think you can’t go through treatment
  • Being unusually irritable and angry
  • Feeling unable to cope with pain, tiredness, and nausea
  • Poor concentration, “fuzzy thinking,” and sudden memory problems
  • Having a very hard time making decisions – even about little things
  • Feeling hopeless – wondering if there’s any point in going on
  • Thinking about cancer and/or death all the time
  • Trouble getting to sleep or early waking (getting less than 4 hours of sleep a night)
  • Trouble eating (a decrease in appetite, or no appetite) for a few weeks
  • Family conflicts and issues that seem impossible to resolve
  • Questioning your faith and religious beliefs that once gave you comfort
  • Feeling worthless and useless

Sometimes, things from the past may put you or your loved one in danger of greater distress and in need of help. Here are some examples of past events that can cause distress to be worse when you have cancer:

  • Having a loved one who died from cancer
  • Having a recent serious illness or death of someone close to you
  • Having had depression or suicidal thoughts in the past
  • Memories of painful events from your past that come back as nightmares or panic attacks

If any of these describe you or a loved one, talk to your cancer care team. You might need help dealing with distress.

Today, doctors, nurses, and other health professionals realize that emotional distress is a part of having cancer, and it should be treated along with the physical symptoms of cancer. The best cancer treatment centers are starting to ask every patient about distress.

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.

Last Medical Review: June 8, 2015 Last Revised: June 8, 2015

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