Cancer is more than a health condition. It is an emotional roller coaster characterized by fears, stress, and uncertainty about the future. So it should come as little surprise that many people both suffering from cancer and recovering from cancer develop anxiety disorders.
Research doesn't have any firm numbers, but estimates show that as many as 50% of cancer patients develop anxiety, and more are likely to suffer from various bouts of stress and anxiety during their treatments. Yet studies have also shown that anxiety can actually hurt the success of cancer treatments, and the quality of life of recovery.
Learn to Control Your Anxiety
It may be hard to fight anxiety when you suffer from cancer, but the better your quality of life the more your treatment will be effective. Take my free 7 minute anxiety test to get snapshot of your anxiety and how it affects you.
Types of Anxiety
Cancer patients may develop more than one type of anxiety. If you haven't taken my free anxiety test yet you should, because it will give you some strong background into what's affecting you.
Generalized anxiety disorder is the most common, but panic disorder may also affect those with a cancer diagnosis because health problems like cancer can cause a person to be hyper-aware of how they feel, and when you pay too much attention to the sensations in your body you increase the risk of experiencing a panic attack. Severe stress can also be a panic attack trigger.
Why Anxiety Treatment is So Important
The "mind/body connection" often sounds like one of those phrases you hear on new age treatment options, but there is a great deal of scientific evidence that in some ways the mind and body really are connected, and that the more stress you experience mentally, the more likely your body suffers as a result.
That's why a study at the Stanford School of Medicine is so important for cancer patients. The study looked at mice that appeared to suffer from low and high anxiety levels. They then put those mice under ultraviolet light in order to put them at significant risk for skin cancer. After a few months, they reviewed the results.
What they found was the following:
- Anxiety did not appear to have a significant effect on cancer risk. That is, both high and low anxiety groups developed skin cancer.
- Anxiety did have a significant effect on cancer outlook. Many mice with high anxiety developed serious, invasive skin cancer. None of the mice in the low anxiety group developed an invasive cancer.
Those results are fairly staggering, and emphasize the importance of anxiety management on cancer development and recovery. It's implied that cancer patients that are under significant stress and anxiety may actually be contributing to their cancer risk if they leave their anxiety untreated
This is a study of mice, of course. It's unclear what the risk is or how pronounced it is in humans. But studies have shown in the past that increased levels of stress hormone weaken the immune system, which indicates that it's highly possible for cancer recovery to be threatened by anxiety and stress.
Other Reasons to Care About Anxiety
Anxiety also simply reduces your quality of life. Regardless of your current situation with cancer, no one deserves to suffer mentally just because they're suffering physically.
Anxiety and stress may also affect overall energy levels (which are important for both recovery and a higher quality of life), hopefulness (which is important for maintaining your treatments), and the mental health of those around you. Cancer patients should strongly consider working on their anxiety, because anxiety holds them back in multiple ways.
Anxiety Tips for Cancer Patients
Like any chronic illness, anxiety isn't something that goes away easily on its own. It takes a great deal of time and commitment to work on your anxiety symptoms and live anxiety free, especially with your cancer diagnosis hanging over your head.
Consider the following tips:
- Stay Busy When You Can Living life in general is an important part of being anxiety free. Medical treatments and physical limitations may prevent you from doing the activities you did in the past, but talk to your doctor about what you can do and make sure that you do it. Staying active represents a healthy distraction that can reduce the amount of focus you have on both your anxiety and your disease.
- Talk Openly Anxiety is often fueled by overthinking. That's why distractions are important, as noted above. But you also need to be okay talking openly to others, because talking to people gets you out of your own head so overthinking doesn't occur. It can be hard at first, but find people that you can talk to regularly about how you're feeling and what you're thinking so that you're not getting stuck inside of your own mind.
- Socialize and Laugh Similarly, laughter and fun are genuine anxiety reduction tools. So make sure you're surrounding yourself with humor and those that bring humor into your life. Avoid the drama shows on TV or spending time alone with a good mystery book if you can. Focus your efforts on laughter, and you'll find that your anxiety decreases as a result.
These aren't perfect strategies, of course, because anxiety isn't the type of condition that simply goes away quickly and easily. But this does represent a start, and from there can you can continue to actively look for effective ways to control your stress and anxiety both throughout your treatment and after you've recovered.
Take my anxiety test to learn more about your anxiety as it stands now. You'll receive a snapshot of what you're dealing with, and you can get some tips and information on how to combat your anxiety symptoms further.
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Osborn, Robyn L., Angelique C. Demoncada, and Michael Feuerstein.Psychosocial interventions for depression, anxiety, and quality of life in cancer survivors: meta-analyses. The International Journal of Psychiatry in Medicine 36.1 (2006): 13-34.
Rammal, Hassan, et al. The impact of high anxiety level on the oxidative status of mouse peripheral blood lymphocytes, granulocytes and monocytes. European journal of pharmacology 589.1 (2008): 173-175.
Taylor, Shelley E., et al. Social support, support groups, and the cancer patient. Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology; Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology 54.5 (1986): 608.
DiMatteo, M. Robin, Heidi S. Lepper, and Thomas W. Croghan.Depression is a risk factor for noncompliance with medical treatment: Meta-analysis of the effects of anxiety and depression on patient adherence. Archives of internal medicine 160.14 (2000): 2101-2107.
Author: Micah Abraham, BSc Psychology, last updated Sep 28, 2017.