Cancer-Related Anxiety

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

The days following a cancer diagnosis are almost always filled with anxiety. (I have, however, talked with a few people who were relieved when they were diagnosed. They instinctively knew that they had cancer and getting the diagnosis brought them peace of mind and allowed them to move forward.)

But most people who are newly diagnosed wake up with worried thoughts about cancer and go to sleep with worried thoughts about cancer. And quite a few toss and turn more than they actually sleep.

Managing this anxiety is important because anxiety causes people to make poor treatment decisions.

Sometimes the anxiety causes individuals to be overly aggressive in their treatment. Some people request the most extensive treatment possible even though more modest treatment (or no treatment) may be just as effective. Undergoing the most aggressive treatment may be appropriate and entirely reasonable, but anxiety shouldn’t be the deciding factor.

Anxiety causes other people to become paralyzed. They don’t make treatment decisions on a timely basis because they think about every “what if” possibility. What if the radiation therapy causes some other form of cancer 20 years from now? What if a new and better treatment is just around the corner?

Treatment decisions are difficult for nearly everyone because there is always some degree of uncertainty. There are no guarantees.

A critical factor is the relationship between you and your doctor. If you trust your doctor, you’ll be less anxious. If you don’t trust your doctor, get a new one. You’ll both be happier.

Besides having trust in your physicians, what can you do to reduce anxiety?

When people are wrestling with treatment decisions, I encourage them to write down a list of reasons to do a particular treatment and a list of the reasons not to do that treatment. People who are overly anxious tend to ask the same questions over and over again. If they prepare a list of pros and cons and then refer to that list, they’re less likely to spin around in a thousand directions.

Physical exercise helps clear one’s thinking. Activities such as yoga often bring a sense of centering, stillness and clarity. And there are programs such as Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction which specifically help people recognize and cope with the stress that often accompanies serious illness.

And getting a good night’s sleep is underappreciated. If people are not sleeping well because of anxiety, they’re probably not making thoughtful decisions. Sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication are sometimes helpful and appropriate in dealing with the stress of a new cancer diagnosis. Talk with your physician about what makes sense for you.

Experiencing anxiety when diagnosed with cancer is normal. But managing that anxiety is essential for making clear-headed decisions.

Published with permission of the Ithaca Journal. 

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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