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Anxiety, Stress and Cancer

When beginning cancer treatment, most patients look forward to the day that their treatment will conclude. Once that time comes, however, people may experience some trouble adjusting.

The task of transitioning to a new life without cancer treatment often brings about a mixture of emotions. Some of the most common emotions experienced upon ending treatment include relief, happiness, and anxiety. 

We often hear that patients are glad to not have to be prodded or to attend numerous appointments. Yet they may be losing the support system of a person they’ve become close with over the course of their treatment. 

Anxiety can arise when patients may no longer feel that they are actively fighting their cancer, if they fear relapse, or if they fear that the side effects of treatment will not fade in time. Some patients may develop a feeling of dread about what the future holds, resulting in a significant emotional challenge.

Dealing with cancer may forever change a person’s perspective of what they value, how they spend their time, and how they identify themselves after treatment. For some, getting back to a “normal life” or a life that closely resembles their life prior to cancer is a priority. And others may permanently identify as a person with cancer and not wish to return to a previous mode of operating. Coping with these challenges effectively is important to being able to lead a happy and productive life. 

One of the best ways to ensure that you are handling these challenges well is to tune into your emotions and communicate them with others:

  • It is important to take steps to understand why you feel these emotions and determine what you can do to minimize their impact. 
  • It is recommended that patients acknowledge fears, grief, anger, stress, or any other emotions, if they are present.
  • It can also be helpful to talk about these emotions with trusted health care professionals including your medical oncologist, a social worker, or other healthcare professionals. Talk to your friends and family, especially if you feel that your reactions are affecting your day-to-day life. 

Professional counselors are trained to assist people in navigating these episodes of difficult emotions. Most cancer survivors experience fears of recurrence. Initially, every ache or pain may trigger fear that the cancer has returned. Often patients are unsure of how much to listen to these body signals and emotional reactions and how much to share them with others. It is best to cope with your fear by tuning into it and communicating it with helpful others:

  • Try not to feel guilty about your emotions or ignore them.
  • Openly discuss what you can do to best reduce your chance of cancer recurrence with us.
  • Once you've done all you can to reduce the risk, attempt to allay unproductive anxiety that may be interfering with good day-to-day functioning.

Focusing on keeping yourself healthy is a way to continue to actively fight your cancer.

  • Don’t underestimate the importance of a healthy lifestyle, including getting 8 hours of restful sleep, eating a balanced and healthy diet, exercising for 30 minutes most days, and appropriately managing stress.
  • These actions may help your body to recover from cancer treatment and put your mind at ease by giving you a greater sense of control over your life.

Remember your follow-up appointments:

  • Fear may rise when it's time for a follow-up appointment, but don't let that stop you from seeing your doctor.
  • Use the time with us to ask questions about any signs or symptoms that worry you. 
  • You may also ask questions about diet, nutrition, and exercise in addition to other things that you can do to maintain good health.

Most cancer survivors report that fear of recurrence gradually wanes with time, but certain things or events can intermittently trigger these fears:

  • It is normal for fear and anxiety to be especially noticeable before follow-up visits or around the anniversary of your cancer diagnosis.
  • Be open about this feeling with your doctor or ask to speak to your doctor before the visit to help reduce your fear and anxiety.
Managing stress

Most people diagnosed with cancer devote all of their energy and time to treatment and recouperating. This can lead to the piling up of other responsibilities that have been deferred.

After you've completed treatment, it may be overwhelming to address those things that have been put on hold. It is best to prioritize and take small steps toward accomplishing each task. And, most important, ask for help.

It is also important to keep in mind that you may not physically feel back to precancer functioning immediately following the conclusion of treatment. Taking time to establish a new daily routine may help, and you may need to be patient with yourself for any change in functioning you may have experienced. 

Stress management techniques are all important. There are many things you can do, including:

  • Talking with other survivors
  • Engaging in pleasurable activities
  • Being outdoors
  • Taking a trip

The following steps can help you cope with the stress and anxiety that can accompany you through the diagnosis of cancer, treatment, and your physical and emotional recovery:

  • Take care of yourself first. Focus on what you can do and make time for the activities you enjoy.
  • Talk about your concerns with others.
  • Pace yourself. Don’t tire yourself out. 
  • Help others. Reaching out to someone else can reduce stress. 
  • Don’t be afraid to say no. Polite refusals will help you maintain control of your life.
  • Give in sometimes. Not every argument is worth winning.
  • Get exercise. It is a great way to get rid of tension and aggression.