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Coping with Disease

Coping with Cancer and Anxiety

by Dr. Susan Lehmann

Coping with Cancer and Anxiety
by Susan Lehmann

Living with cancer often means coping with anxiety. Anxiety can occur at all points, from screening and diagnosis through treatment. Studies have shown that up to 50 percent of patients with cancer experience some form of anxiety and that about a quarter of those with cancer are suffering from serious anxiety symptoms.

A recent study found that women in the first year after being diagnosed with breast cancer were twice as likely to suffer significant anxiety disorders as were similarly aged women without breast cancer.

A diagnosis of breast cancer can generate considerable fear and worry about the treatment ahead, possible changes to one's body and one's sense of self, the illness's impact on the family, and concerns for the future.

Anxiety can also sometimes even be a side effect of certain medications used to treat breast cancer. Finally, although rates of anxiety usually return to normal levels during periods of remission, feelings of anxiety may skyrocket again prior to follow-up medical appointments and testing.

When does anxiety become a serious condition?

While anxiety is common among individuals with cancer, and is often certainly understandable, it can also become debilitating. How can you distinguish between a bout of ordinary anxiety and one that might indicate a more serious anxiety condition?

Most people with mild or moderate anxiety do not feel anxious all the time, and they are able to become engaged in pleasurable activities that take their mind away from the anxiety, at least for periods of time. Individuals with more serious anxiety, however, are constantly consumed by apprehension, cannot be distracted from their concerns by enjoyable activities, and are often on edge or are easily irritated by minor things. And they are more likely to have difficulty sleeping or eating, or both.

How can anxiety be controlled?

Having a strong support system and access to medical information about one's illness are both associated with diminishing anxiety symptoms. It is also important to maintain one's regular outlets for stress reduction, such as exercise and personal hobbies.

Whenever anxiety negatively impacts your quality of life and functioning, be sure to discuss these feelings with your physician — he or she can help you develop an effective plan to manage your excessive stress and anxiety.

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