Anxiety and stress

How do anxiety and stress affect cancer patients?

In a health care environment, patients often feel scared, overwhelmed and confused by the abundance of information and clinical jargon they have to digest. With a cancer diagnosis, and the unsettling implications that come with it, the emotions may be even more pronounced. Stress and anxiety are common side effects of cancer and its treatment. You may feel uncertain over your future, fearful of the unknown or stressed about how your cancer is impacting your ability to work, care for your family, travel or function on a daily basis. These feelings may contribute to other complications, including:

It is normal to feel anxious and stressed when confronted with a cancer diagnosis. But when those feelings compound your health issues, integrative therapies may offer welcome relief in alleviating the symptoms, so you can focus on healing.

How likely are cancer patients to experience anxiety and stress?

Several clinically significant studies have supported the belief that cancer patients are more apt to suffer from anxiety, stress, depression and other emotional challenges. A large study published in October 2014 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, for example, found that one in three of the 2,100 patients in cancer care centers in Germany experienced a clinically defined emotional disorder such as anxiety, depression or mood or adjustment disorder—a higher prevalence than in the general population. A 2013 study published in the Lancet medical journal, evaluating 43 studies involving 51,381 cancer patients, found that long-term cancer survivors are more likely to experience anxiety than their spouses or the general population.

How may integrative care help?

A number of supportive care services may help alleviate cancer-related anxiety and stress, often by addressing the physical problems that cause it or through relaxation techniques. These include:

Behavioral health

One way to manage anxiety and stress is to acknowledge it, and address it head-on. Our behavioral health team is available to all patients at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), no matter where they are in their cancer journey, offering a number of therapeutic options to manage anxiety, including:

  • Talk therapy through individual, couple or family counseling to help patients better understand the connection between their physical health and their emotional well-being and explore self-care options
  • Breathing and relaxation techniques that may help lower the heart rate and promote a sense of calm
  • HeartMath® practices, designed to reduce stress and promote mental and emotional balance
  • Guided imagery, which teaches patients to use their own senses to visualize or transport themselves to a calming environment that brings them a sense of peace and physical and emotional comfort, allowing them to better tolerate a treatment procedure, for example, or reduce their overall anxiety levels
  • Animal-assisted therapy, which most commonly uses dogs to offer comfort, relief and a distraction from issues that cause stress and anxiety
  • Laughter therapy, which taps the healing power of laughter as a natural diversion that has been shown to decrease stress-related hormones, among other benefits

Learn more about behavioral health

Oncology rehabilitation

Featuring physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech and language pathology and manual therapy, our oncology rehabilitation department offers a wide array of tools to combat cancer-related side effects.

Stress and anxiety often arise as an emotional reaction to physical limitations brought on by the disease or its treatment. Our oncology rehabilitation clinicians work with patients to help restore their physical function. If the anxiety was brought on by an inability to do daily chores or go to work, for example, our occupational therapists can design a program to help the patient regain the ability to shower, dress, eat, drive and perform other everyday tasks.

An individual exercise program may be developed by our physical therapists, combining range-of-motion training with light-resistance exercises that may calm you down and control your heart rate. If you are anxious because you’ve become forgetful, occupational and speech therapies may help with memory and cognition.

Learn more about oncology rehabilitation

Spiritual support

Tapping into one’s faith can prove powerful in helping patients navigate the challenges of a cancer diagnosis, offering a natural, self-managed way to address anxiety and stress. Cancer patients often turn to our chaplains for spiritual support in offering perspective on their cancer journey.

“Cancer patients have many questions,” says the Rev. Percy W. McCray Jr., Director of Faith-Based Programs at CTCA®. “They are exploring whether there’s a purpose for getting cancer, and what they should be learning from the experience. A diagnosis of cancer in many cases provides patients with tremendous opportunity for self-reflection and perspective. It often helps them find meaning, value and purpose in their life that perhaps did not exist before the diagnosis. The benefit and beauty of spiritual schools of thought are that they can help give patients additional tools to cope with some very difficult health care challenges.”

The spiritual support team at CTCA helps patients manage anxiety and stress by offering:

  • Religious meditation classes, using breathing and guide imagery techniques
  • Worship services that include singing, Scripture reading and inspirational messages

Learn more about spiritual support