A cancer diagnosis can evoke many emotions, including anxiety, concern for the future, and fear of cancer recurrence (FCR). All forms of fear and anxiety can drive people to seek out professional mental health help, and fear of cancer is no exception. Fortunately, coping strategies can be taught to help you manage the uncomfortable symptoms of cancer anxiety.1
Should We Be Worried About Getting Cancer?
According to the American Cancer Society, about 41% of men and 39% of women will develop cancer at any point in their life, which may seem high, but only 20% of men and about 18% of women will die from cancer.11 Cancer rates are high, but should you worry about cancer? In some cases, the answer is yes. If the worry helps shift your behaviors towards being healthier, like quitting smoking for example, it can prove helpful. If the worry does not modify your behaviors and overtakes your ability to function, then it becomes a negative and stressful endeavor.
For those dealing with cancer anxiety, Dr. Raphael Bueno, Director of the International Mesothelioma Program, has some encouraging words: “There is much more optimism today about the future of cancer treatment than there was ten years ago. We have a much better understanding of the disease at the molecular level. There are better drugs now, and better ones coming down the line.”10
Symptoms of Cancer Phobia
Symptoms to be aware of that may point to anxiety and fear relating to a cancer diagnosis include feelings of dread, an inability to cope, and anxious facial expressions. If these symptoms begin to impact the quality of your life, relationships, and ability to function, it could be a signal that additional help from a therapist or other mental health professional is needed.
Here are common symptoms associated with a fear of cancer:
- Feeling like something bad is about to happen
- Repeatedly asking people close to you about your illness and what they think you should do
- Unable to cope with changes to your routine
- Persistent negativity2
- Unending feelings of worry and fear
- Inability to concentrate, be attentive, or focus
- Anxious facial expressions
- Trembling or shaking
- Dry mouth
- Irritability or angry outbursts3
- Panic attacks
What Causes Fear of Cancer?
Fear of cancer, or carcinophobia, emanates from our view of the disease as vicious, unpredictable, and indestructible. It brings up thanatophobia (fear of death), and because it affects so many people, it can feel imminent.4 Another aspect is the fear of recurrence. For some, hearing that they’re cancer-free after treatment may lead to anxiety that the cancer will return.5
9 Ways to Cope With Fear of Cancer
There are a number of options available to help cancer patients cope with fear, including identifying triggers, resisting isolation, and making healthy choices. The goal of these strategies is to help you gain a sense of control over your body and mind in a situation where both may feel out of control. If possible, it’s important to participate in these strategies because anxiety can compromise your recovery.
Here are nine tips to help you cope with the fear of cancer:
- Use the Internet wisely and sparingly: There’s a lot of cyberchondria around cancer, if you are tempted to do a Google search, try and channel that energy into something else. Going down the rabbit hole of web searches only makes anxiety worse.7
- Identify triggers and prepare for them: Examples of triggers are follow-up appointments, public health campaigns, or a new diagnosis of family and friends. Other triggers might be physical symptoms such as pain and fatigue, causing you to worry that the cancer has recurred.8
- Use mind-body tools to combat fears and triggers: Practice cognitive behavioral skills like setting aside “worry time,” meditation and meditative movement (like yoga or tai chi), and relaxation techniques (deep breathing and guided imagery).8
- Express strong feelings like anger or sadness: Sometimes, expression makes it easier to let go of difficult feelings. If you prefer not to discuss your cancer with others, you can still sort out your feelings through an activity like journaling.9
- Take control of your mental and physical health: Try to eat nourishing foods, get sleep, and avoid abuse of alcohol or drugs. Substance abuse can harm your immune system and has been linked to different types of cancer.
- Resist the temptation to isolate yourself: You can gain strength and determination through the love and support of family and friends. Spending time with people you feel comfortable with and trust can energize you and reduce stress.
- Identify and prioritize the people and things that are most meaningful to you: Identify what and who you’re grateful for and turn to them in times of struggle. It may even be a small thing like a song, something you read, or an activity that brings you moments of relief.
- Find a doctor that you trust: Unless you trust your doctor, you may constantly doubt or question their treatment. You may worry they are missing an important part of your treatment.
- Understand that you may not need all the tests you’d like: Getting weekly PET scans and MRIs would be a good way to check for cancer, but this level of care is not reasonable or appropriate. Just because you’d like a test does not mean it is medically necessary.
When to Get Professional Help for Cancer Phobia
If you are experiencing symptoms of cancer phobia on an ongoing basis, you should consider getting help from a mental health specialist. This is especially true if it becomes debilitating to the extent where it negatively impacts your interpersonal relationships, ability to function, or ability to follow through with doctor-recommended treatment.
Indicators that you need guidance from a healthcare professional include:6
- Increasing isolation
- Disrupted sleep and appetite
- Fearing treatment failure or cancer recurrence
- Not participating in activities you used to enjoy
- Feeling you have nothing to look forward to
Who Should I Consult For Help?
If you have ongoing questions or fears about cancer, you may want to consult your oncologist or a member of your cancer treatment team. Make a list of questions regarding your diagnosis, treatment, and fears regarding the rate of recurrence. Learn about warning signs of recurrence and what you should expect in terms of future testing and screening regimes and schedules so you can realistically prepare for the future.
Cancer Phobia Treatments
Cancer phobia treatments are available to help shrink your anxiety and worry. No one should have to fear a condition they do not have.
Psychotherapy will be the first line treatment for cancer phobia. A therapist can help you explore the origins of your worry and help to reduce the anxiety by better understanding your thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. Depending on the form of treatment, the therapist could help you expose yourself to your fears or find healthier ways to cope with your stress levels.
How to Find a Therapist
When fears regarding your cancer continue to impact your daily life on multiple levels, consider consulting a licensed and certified mental health professional as soon as possible. Look for a therapist that has experience and expertise working with cancer patients. There may be someone affiliated with the hospital or clinic where you are receiving treatments. If not, consider using an online therapist directory where you can sort by location, specialty, and insurance coverage.
If the anxious symptoms affect your health, happiness, and daily routines, you could talk to your treatment team about medications. Medications for anxiety disorders can be highly effective and safe overall.
Some common medications for anxiety disorders include:12
- Antidepressants: Antidepressants can help regulate neurotransmitters like serotonin and norepinephrine in the brain to reduce anxious feelings. These can take up to four to six weeks to become effective.
- Anti-anxiety medications: Options like benzodiazepines will work quickly and effectively to address anxiety. The downside is that these may be habit-forming and should only be used in the short-term.
- Beta-blockers: Typically used to lower blood pressure, beta-blockers can provide some relief from anxious symptoms.
All medications carry a risk for side effects, some of which can be serious. You should talk with your doctor about possible side effects and tell them about all prescription and over the counter medications, herbs, and supplements you are taking before starting any medication.
Coping With the Fear of a Cancer Recurrence
Fear of cancer recurrence is a normal and reasonable response to receiving a serious diagnosis, but be aware and recognize when your thoughts about recurrence become intrusive or frequent.
Here are some tips for coping with fear of a cancer recurrence:
- Have a plan in place to cope with triggers: This plan may include consulting with your physician, journaling, scheduling an appointment with your therapist, or being with a trusted loved one.
- Identify people and places where support will be available: Support groups and online chat rooms are good places to talk with other cancer survivors. Knowing that other cancer patients have similar thoughts and fears can help you feel less alone. They also can offer tips on understanding where these fears are coming from and offer interventions to successfully cope.
- Celebrate milestones and focus on wellness: Acknowledge and celebrate milestones like your ability to travel for the first time or return to an activity you previously had to forgo. Create your own milestones and come up with meaningful ways to honor them. Invite loved ones to join you in these celebrations.
- Educate yourself: Have a candid conversation with your oncology team about your specific type of cancer and treatment regime. Ask relevant questions about your prognosis and the odds of recurrence. Find out about the nature and frequency of follow-up tests and appointments and learn what you can do to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
- Find out how your cancer and treatments will impact your ability to work: Talk to human resources, a supervisor, or colleagues about what options are available at work to help support you through your illness and the resulting treatment. Learn what financial/insurance coverage is available.
- Find group counseling supports: Group counseling can be a powerful source of support, information, and resources for cancer patients. Find out if the place you are receiving your cancer treatment offers group therapy options. In addition, you can find peer support and group chat rooms to offer comfort and support for yourself and your family members/caregivers.
Final Thoughts on Dealing With Cancer Anxiety
Learning that you have cancer is life-changing, and anxiety is a normal response. While you can’t change your diagnosis, there are concrete actions you can take in terms of understanding its impact on your life.
Take these concrete actions to deal with cancer anxiety:
- Rely on the experience, knowledge, and support of your oncology team
- Seek out needed emotional and psychological support from allied mental health professionals, support groups, and trusted family and friends
- Remember, you don’t have to face cancer alone