Understanding cancer and anxiety
Being told you have cancer can make you feel worried or scared. These feelings are a natural response to stress. They are sometimes called anxiety. But if these feelings become very hard to cope with or affect your daily life, you could have an anxiety disorder. The good news is there is lots of help and support to help you cope with anxiety.
What is health-related anxiety?
Anxiety can be brought on by stress or trauma. Anxiety disorders are some of the most common mental health problems.
Health-related anxiety is not a specific disorder. But being told you have a serious health condition like cancer can trigger anxiety.
Health anxiety is different. It is when someone spends so much time worrying about getting ill or thinking they are ill that it takes over their lives.
Does cancer cause anxiety?
You are likely to feel some of the emotions associated with anxiety when you have cancer. But that does not mean you have an anxiety disorder.
It is common to worry about things like what stage your cancer is at, what treatment you will need and whether you will be in pain. But, if these feelings do not go away or keep getting worse, you might need some extra help.
No matter how serious your anxiety is, it can always help to talk to someone. That might be a trusted friend or family member. Or, you might want to talk to your healthcare team or Young Lives vs Cancer social worker.
If you are worried you might have an anxiety disorder, it can help to speak to a counsellor.
Symptoms of anxiety for cancer patients
Anxiety can affect your body and mind in lots of ways whether you have cancer or not. But sometimes it can be hard to tell whether your symptoms are caused by anxiety or your treatment. The symptoms of anxiety can be scary but there are ways to manage them.
If you have anxiety, you may have some of these physical symptoms:
- Feeling tired but unable to sleep
- Feeling short of breath
- A thumping heart
- Having a dry mouth
- Tense and aching muscles
- Chest pain
- A fluttering feeling in your stomach
- Needing to poo more often or having very runny poo
- Shaking hands or body
- A tingling feeling in your hands or feet
Mental health symptoms
Mental health symptoms of anxiety can include:
- Feeling nervous or tense
- A constant sense of dread
- Being unable to stop worrying
- Needing lots of reassurance that people are not angry with you
- Having low mood or depression
- Finding it hard to concentrate
- Feeling restless
- Feeling irritable
Feeling very anxious can lead to a panic attack. You might feel unable to breathe properly or your heart might be pounding. You may find yourself sweating, feeling dizzy and your arms and legs may shake. You might also have chest or stomach pains.
A panic attack can be scary but it will pass. If you are having a panic attack, stop what you are doing and focus on breathing slowly and deeply. If you are seeing a counsellor, talk to them about panic attacks. You can also tell your doctor or nurse.
Causes of anxiety before, during and after cancer
There are times when you are likely to feel more anxious than others. These can include when you are first diagnosed, just before treatment or even once your treatment is over.
Anxiety before cancer diagnosis
Waiting to find out if you have cancer can be scary. It can feel like you are waiting for ages. You may already be worrying about the future and how your life will change.
Some people find keeping busy and distracted helps. Talk to a friend or family member about how you are feeling.
Avoid too many online searches before you know for sure if you have cancer. There are lots of different types of cancer and treatment. Online information can be confusing, upsetting or even misleading until you know more.
Anxiety after cancer diagnosis
Nothing can really prepare you for being told you have cancer. It is common to be scared, numb or angry. You might be worried about telling people or what comes next.
Some people find these worries get better in time. But, if worry and fear become hard to cope with and start to impact your daily life, you may have anxiety. If that happens, speak to your care team about how to get more help.
Anxiety during cancer treatment
During treatment you might be worried about whether it will work and any side effects. Treatment can also mean some big changes like having to stop school or leave work. Your relationships might change. You might have to stay in the hospital for a while.
There are lots of things which feel out of control. This lack of control can make you feel anxious.
Some people find it helpful to focus on one day at a time. You can also try focusing on what you can control, even if it seems like something small.
Anxiety about cancer surgery
You might feel anxious before your surgery. Make sure to ask your healthcare team as many questions as you need to. It can help to make a list so you remember everything you want to ask.
After surgery, give yourself time to recover both physically and mentally. Again, you might find it helpful to ask your care team questions about what happens next.
If your surgery has left you with scars or other changes to your body, you might have anxiety about the way you look. Find out more about body image and cancer treatment here.
Anxiety after the all clear
Once your treatment is finished and you are given the all clear, you may have new fears about the future. You might also feel you have lost the support system you had while you were having treatment.
Lots of people worry about their cancer coming back, especially in the first year. You might also worry about what comes next at school or work. Get more advice on getting back to ‘normal’ here.
Treating anxiety for cancer patients
There are lots of things you can do to help you cope with anxiety. Talking to friends and family can really help. There are also lots of self-help techniques. These include listening to music, yoga and breathing exercises.
If you need some extra support, you could try therapy or medication.
Talking with your doctor
Let your care team know how you are feeling. Lots of people with cancer have anxiety. Your doctor or nurse will be able to answer your questions. This could help put your mind at ease. They can also tell you where to get extra support if you need it.
What symptoms and side effects of my cancer treatment could affect my mental health?
Cancer treatment can impact your mental health. But which symptoms and side effects have the biggest impact depends on lots of things. These include what is most important to you.
For example, some people find not being able to see friends because they are tired or feeling sick has a big impact. For others, it might be body issues.
A list of organisations which can help you with all aspects of your emotions and mental health is available here.
Can relaxation techniques help manage anxiety?
Relaxation techniques can help some people with anxiety. You could try having a massage or try yoga or meditation.
Closing your eyes and listening to music can also help you feel calmer. Or you could try deep breathing exercises.
You might want to try a few things out to see what works best for you.
Can medication help manage anxiety?
Some people find medication can help them manage anxiety. This might be anti-anxiety medication to help cope with symptoms of anxiety in the short-term. Your doctor may also prescribe an antidepressant.
You should talk to your doctor about your options and what is best for you.
Who should I contact if my anxiety symptoms continue or worsen?
Talk to your care team or GP if your anxiety is not getting better or getting worse. You can also ask to be referred to a counsellor or psychologist.
If you need emergency help, we have a list of useful contacts here.
If you have severe anxiety or panic attacks, anti-anxiety tablets may help. These can be prescribed by your doctor. They can help you to feel calmer and more in control of your anxiety.
There are different types of anti-anxiety tablets. They may not work instantly. Some have side effects. Let your doctor know if you do not like the way medication is making you feel.
Anti-anxiety medication is normally only given for a short time. Your doctor may prescribe an antidepressant if your anxiety lasts a long time.
If your anxiety is affecting your daily life, you may want to see a psychologist, psychotherapist or counsellor. They can offer you strategies to cope with anxiety and panic attacks.
How Young Lives vs Cancer can support you
We offer day-to-day support, information and guidance, plus expert advice via our live chat and helpline. You can also join our Facebook groups to meet other young people with cancer. Find out more here about all the support we offer here.
Find out more about coping with feelings, body image and cancer treatment in our health and wellbeing section here.
We also have a list of more organisations and communities that can offer you mental health support here.
Who to talk to for support
Anxiety can make you feel alone. But talking to other people can help. You can talk to someone you already know, like a friend or a family member. You might want to join a support group or have a one-to-one therapy session.
Macmillan has a tool you can use to search for local support groups here.
Shine Cancer Support has yoga and other activity videos on its website which can help with relaxation.
You can also download the Daylight app for free. It offers CBT techniques to help with anxiety.
If you would rather speak to someone over the phone, call one of these helplines:
- Anxiety UK – 03444 775774
- The Samaritans – 116 123
- Macmillan Cancer Support – 0808 8080000