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Home > Health Library > Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI]
This information is produced and provided by the National Cancer Institute (NCI). The information in this topic may have changed since it was written. For the most current information, contact the National Cancer Institute via the Internet web site at http://cancer.gov or call 1-800-4-CANCER.
Anxiety and distress can affect the quality of life of patients with cancer and their families.
Patients living with cancer feel many different emotions, including anxiety and distress.
Patients may have feelings of anxiety and distress while being screened for a cancer, waiting for the results of tests, receiving a cancer diagnosis, being treated for cancer, or worrying that cancer will recur (come back).
Anxiety and distress may affect a patient's ability to cope with a cancer diagnosis or treatment. It may cause patients to miss check-ups or delay treatment. Anxiety may increase pain, affect sleep, and cause nausea and vomiting. Even mild anxiety can affect the quality of life for cancer patients and their families and may need to be treated.
Patients living with cancer can feel different levels of distress.
Some patients living with cancer have a low level of distress and others have higher levels of distress. The level of distress ranges from being able to adjust to living with cancer to having a serious mental health problem, such as major depression. However, most patients with cancer do not have signs or symptoms of any specific mental health problem. This summary describes the less severe levels of distress in patients living with cancer, including:
There are certain risk factors for serious distress in people with cancer.
Nearly half of cancer patients report having a lot of distress. Patients with lung, pancreatic, and brain cancers may be more likely to report distress, but in general, the type of cancer does not make a difference. Factors that increase the risk of anxiety and distress are not always related to the cancer. The following may be risk factors for high levels of distress in patients with cancer:
Screening is done to find out if the patient needs help adjusting to cancer.
Screening is usually done by asking the patient questions, either in an interview or on paper. Patients who show a high level of distress usually find it helpful to talk about their concerns with a social worker, mental health professional, palliative care specialist, or pastoral counselor.
This summary is about adjustment to cancer, anxiety, and distress in adults with cancer.
See the following PDQ summaries for information on depression and post-traumatic stress disorder:
Patients living with cancer need to make adjustments in their lives to cope with the disease and changes in treatment.
Living with a diagnosis of cancer involves many life adjustments. Normal adjustment involves learning to cope with emotional distress and solve problems caused by having cancer. Patients with cancer do not make these adjustments all at once, but over a period of time as their disease and treatment change. Patients may need to make adjustments when they:
Coping methods help patients adjust.
Patients find it easier to adjust if they can carry on with their usual routines and work, keep doing activities that matter to them, and cope with the stress in their lives.
Coping is the use of thoughts and behaviors to adjust to life situations. The way people cope is usually linked to their personality traits (such as whether they usually expect the best or worst, or are shy or outgoing).
Coping methods include the use of thoughts and behaviors in special situations. For example, changing a daily routine or work schedule to manage the side effects of cancer treatment is a coping method. Using coping methods can help a patient deal with certain problems, emotional distress, and cancer in his or her daily life.
Patients who adjust well are usually very involved in coping with cancer. They also continue to find meaning and importance in their lives. Patients who do not adjust well may withdraw from relationships or situations and feel hopeless. Studies are being done to find out how different types of coping methods affect the quality of life for cancer survivors.
Patients who are adjusting to the changes caused by cancer may have distress.
Distress can occur when patients feel they are unable to manage or control changes caused by cancer. Patients with the same diagnosis or treatment can have very different levels of distress. Patients have less distress when they feel the demands of the diagnosis and treatment are low or the amount of support they get is high. For example, a health care professional can help the patient adjust to the side effects of chemotherapy by giving medicine for nausea.
The way each patient copes with cancer depends on many physical and emotional factors.
The following factors affect how a patient copes with the stress of cancer:
Cancer patients need different coping skills at different points in time.
The coping skills needed will change at important points in time. These include the following:
Learning the diagnosis
The process of adjusting to cancer begins before learning the diagnosis. Patients may feel worried and afraid when they have unexplained symptoms or are having tests done to find out if they have cancer.
A diagnosis of cancer can cause expected and normal emotional distress. Some patients may not believe it and ask, "Are you sure you have the right test results?" They may feel numb or in shock, or as if "This can't be happening to me". Many patients wonder, "Could I die from this?"
Many patients feel they are not able to think clearly and may not understand or remember important information that the doctor gives them about the diagnosis and treatment options. Patients should have a way to go over this information later. It helps to have someone with them at appointments, bring a tape recorder, or make a second appointment to ask the doctor questions and go over the treatment plan. See Talking with the Health Care Team in the PDQ summary on Communication in Cancer Care for more information.
As patients accept the diagnosis, they begin to feel symptoms of distress, including:
When patients receive and understand information about cancer and their treatment options, they may begin to feel more hopeful. Over time, by using ways to cope that have worked in the past and learning new ways to cope, patients usually adjust to having cancer. Extra professional help to deal with problems such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, and depression can be helpful during this time.
Being treated for cancer
As patients go through treatment for cancer, they use coping strategies to adjust to the stress of treatment. Patients may have anxiety or fears about:
Patients usually adjust well when they can compare short-term discomfort to long-term benefit (for example living longer) and decide, "It's worth it". Questions that patients may ask during treatment include, "Will I survive this?"; "Will they be able to remove all the cancer?"; or "What side effects will I have?" Finding ways to cope with problems caused by cancer such as feeling tired, getting to and from treatment, and changes in work schedule is helpful.
Finishing cancer treatment can cause mixed feelings. It may be a time of celebration and relief that treatment has ended. But it may also be a time of worry that the cancer could come back. Many patients are glad that treatment has ended but feel increased anxiety as they see their doctors less often. Other concerns include returning to work and family life and being very worried about any change in their health.
During remission, patients may become stressed before follow-up medical appointments because they worry that the cancer has come back. Waiting for test results can be very stressful.
Patients who are able to express both positive and negative emotions are more likely to adjust well. Patients are more able to cope with the emotional stress of finishing treatment and being in remission when they:
Learning that the cancer has come back
Sometimes cancer comes back and does not get better with treatment. The treatment plan then changes from one that is meant to cure the cancer to one that gives comfort and relieves symptoms. This may cause great anxiety for the patient. The patient may feel shock and be unable to believe it at first. This may be followed by a period of distress such as depression, trouble focusing, and being unable to stop thinking about death. Signs of normal adjustment include:
Patients slowly adjust to the return of cancer. They stop expecting to be cured of cancer and begin a different kind of healing. This healing is a process of becoming whole again by changing one's life in many ways when faced with the possibility of death. It is very important that patients keep up hope while they adjust to the return of cancer. Some patients keep up hope through their spirituality or religious beliefs. (See the PDQ summary on Spirituality in Cancer Care for more information.)
Becoming a cancer survivor
Patients adjust to finishing cancer treatment and being long-term cancer survivors over many years. As treatments for cancer have gotten better, cancer has become a chronic disease for some patients. Some common problems reported by cancer survivors as they face the future include:
Most patients adjust well and some even say that surviving cancer has given them a greater appreciation of life, helped them understand what is most important in their life, and stronger spiritual or religious beliefs.
Some patients may have more trouble adjusting because of medical problems, fewer friends and family members to give support, money problems, or mental health problems not related to the cancer.
Feelings of emotional, social, or spiritual distress can make it hard to cope with cancer treatment.
Almost all patients living with cancer have feelings of distress. Feelings of distress range from sadness and fears to more serious problems such as depression, panic, feeling uncertain about spiritual beliefs, or feeling alone or separate from friends and family.
Patients who are in distress during any phase of cancer need treatment and support for their distress. Patients are more likely to need to be checked and treated for distress during the following periods:
Patients who are having trouble coping with cancer may find it helpful to talk with a professional about their concerns and worries. These specialists include:
Patients who are in distress can be helped by different kinds of emotional and social support.
Studies have shown that patients who are having trouble adjusting to cancer are helped by treatments that give them emotional and social support, including:
These types of treatment may be combined in different ways for one or more sessions. Studies have shown that patients with cancer who receive such therapies receive benefits compared to those who do not receive these therapies. Benefits include having lower levels of depression, anxiety, and disease- and treatment-related symptoms, as well as feeling more optimistic. Patients who have the most distress seem to get the most help from these therapies. However, patients who received these therapies did not live longer than those who did not receive them.
Adjustment disorders may cause serious problems in daily life.
An adjustment disorder occurs when the patient's reaction to a stressful event:
Causes of adjustment disorders in cancer patients include the following:
An adjustment disorder usually begins within three months of a stressful event and lasts no longer than six months after the event is over. Some patients may have a chronic adjustment disorder because they have many causes of distress, one right after another.
An adjustment disorder may become a more serious mental disorder such as major depression. This is more common in children and adolescents than in adults. (See the PDQ summary on Pediatric Supportive Care for more information.)
Counseling can help patients with adjustment disorders.
Individual (one-to-one) and group counseling have been shown to help cancer patients with adjustment disorders. Counseling may include treatment that focuses on the patient's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. The following may help patients cope:
Counseling may be combined with antianxiety medicine or antidepressants.
Counseling should be tried before medicine. Some patients are not helped by counseling or have a more severe mental health problem, such as severe anxiety or depression. These patients may be helped by an antianxiety or antidepressant medicine along with counseling. (See the PDQ summary on Depression for more information.)
Current Clinical Trials
Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.
Anxiety disorders are very strong fears that may be caused by physical or psychological stress.
Studies show that almost half of all patients with cancer say they feel some anxiety and about one-fourth of all patients with cancer say they feel a great deal of anxiety. Patients living with cancer find that they feel more or less anxiety at different times. A patient may become more anxious as cancer spreads or treatment becomes more intense.
For some patients feelings of anxiety may become overwhelming and affect cancer treatment. This is especially true for patients who had periods of intense anxiety before their cancer diagnosis. Most patients who did not have an anxiety condition before their cancer diagnosis will not have an anxiety disorder related to the cancer.
Patients are more likely to have anxiety disorders during cancer treatment if they have any of the following:
Anxiety disorders may be hard to diagnose.
It may be hard to tell the difference between normal fears related to cancer and abnormally severe fears that can be described as an anxiety disorder. The diagnosis is based on how symptoms of anxiety affect the patient's quality of life, what kinds of symptoms began since the cancer diagnosis or treatment, when the symptoms occur, and how long they last.
Anxiety disorders cause serious symptoms that affect day-to-day life, including:
There are different causes of anxiety disorders in cancer patients.
In addition to anxiety caused by a cancer diagnosis, the following may cause anxiety in patients with cancer:
Anxiety from these causes is usually managed by treating the cause itself.
A cancer diagnosis may cause anxiety disorders to come back in patients with a history of them.
When patients who had an anxiety disorder in the past are diagnosed with cancer, then the anxiety disorder may come back. These patients may feel extreme fear, be unable to remember information given to them by caregivers, or be unable to follow through with medical tests and procedures. They may have symptoms including:
Patients with cancer may have the following types of anxiety disorders:
Phobias are fears about a situation or an object that lasts over time. People with phobias usually feel intense anxiety and avoid the situation or object they are afraid of. For example, patients with a phobia of small spaces may avoid having tests in small spaces, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.
Phobias may make it hard for patients to follow through with tests and procedures or treatment. Phobias are treated by professionals and include different kinds of therapy.
Patients with panic disorder feel sudden intense anxiety, known as panic attacks. Symptoms of panic disorder include the following:
A panic attack may last for several minutes or longer. There may be feelings of discomfort that last for several hours after the attack. Panic attacks are treated with medicine and talk therapy.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is rare in patients with cancer who did not have the disorder before being diagnosed with cancer.
Obsessive-compulsive disorder is diagnosed when a person uses persistent (obsessive) thoughts, ideas, or images and compulsions (repetitive behaviors) to manage feelings of distress. The obsessions and compulsions affect the person's ability to work, go to school, or be in social situations. Examples of compulsions include frequent hand washing or constantly checking to make sure a door is locked. Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be unable to follow through with cancer treatment because of these thoughts and behaviors. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is treated with medicine and individual (one-to-one) counseling.
Post-traumatic stress disorder
See the PDQ summary on Cancer-Related Post-traumatic Stress for information about this condition.
Generalized anxiety disorder
Patients with generalized anxiety disorder may feel extreme and constant anxiety or worry. For example, patients with supportive family and friends may fear that no one will care for them. Patients may worry that they cannot pay for their treatment, even though they have enough money and insurance.
A person who has generalized anxiety may feel irritable, restless, or dizzy, have tense muscles, shortness of breath, fast heart beat, sweating, or get tired quickly. Generalized anxiety disorder sometimes begins after a patient has been very depressed.
There are different kinds of treatment for anxiety disorders.
There are different types of treatment for patients with anxiety disorders, including methods to manage stress. Ways to manage stress include the following:
Patients with anxiety disorders need information and support to understand their cancer and treatment choices. Psychological treatments for anxiety can also be helpful. These include the following:
Other treatments used to lessen the symptoms of anxiety include the following:
Using different methods together may be helpful for some patients. (See the Psychological and Social Distress section of this summary for more information.)
Medicine may be used alone or combined with other types of treatment for anxiety disorders.
Antianxiety medicines may be used if the patient doesn't want counseling or if it's not available. These medicines relieve symptoms of anxiety, such as feelings of fear, dread, uneasiness, and muscle tightness. They may relieve daytime distress and reduce insomnia. These medicines may be used alone or combined with other therapies.
Although some patients are afraid they may become addicted to antianxiety medicines, this is not a common problem in cancer patients. Enough medicine is given to relieve symptoms and then the dose is slowly lowered as symptoms begin to get better.
Studies show that antidepressants are useful in treating anxiety disorders. Children and teenagers being treated with antidepressants have an increased risk of suicidal thinking and behavior and must be watched closely. (See the Treatment section of the PDQ summary on Depression for more information.)
Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.
PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government's center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.
Purpose of This Summary
This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about normal adjustment issues, and the pathophysiology and treatment of psychosocial distress and the adjustment disorders. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.
Reviewers and Updates
Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Date Last Modified") is the date of the most recent change.
The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board.
Clinical Trial Information
A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.
Clinical trials are listed in PDQ and can be found online at NCI's website. Many cancer doctors who take part in clinical trials are also listed in PDQ. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).
Permission to Use This Summary
PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as "NCI's PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary]."
The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:
PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Adjustment to Cancer. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings/anxiety-distress-pdq. Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389325]
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Last Revised: 2015-01-07
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