Anxiety is an unpleasant state of inner turmoil and can lead to nervous behavior like pacing, sleeplessness, racing thoughts, and unpleasant physical sensations. Some women undergoing chemotherapy become preoccupied with questions: Did I choose the right treatment? Will the side effects of chemotherapy be too much? How will my family cope with my illness? Will the cancer come back? Will I die?
Of course, all women will have concerns and worries about their cancer and treatment. But when anxiety and fear become excessive, they can negatively impact your health, your treatment, and your relationships. Anxiety can affect your ability to cope with your treatment plan, miss medical appointments, and delay treatment. It can also increase pain and exacerbate other side effects like insomnia, weight loss or gain, and nausea. When anxiety is severe, it can interfere with your daily functioning including your relationships with family and friends.
Managing these feelings will ensure your best overall health both during and after treatment.
Symptoms of Anxiety and Stress
Everyone has stress sometimes. But when the feelings of stress and anxiety become persistent, they can cause many physical symptoms, including:
- Increased heart rate
- Rapid breathing
- Trouble concentrating
- Chest Pain
- Numbness and tingling in hands and feet
If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, talk with your oncologist or other healthcare team members about your feelings. Especially if your symptoms of anxiety are interfering with your treatment, work, relationships, or other parts of your life.
What Can Relieve Anxiety?
The most important thing about anxiety is to recognize it and talk to your healthcare team so that you can get the help you need. Some anxiety is mild and can be relieved with reassurances and lifestyle changes, while some is more severe and will require psychotherapy, medication, or a combination of the two.
Relaxation techniques. By using what’s known as "mind-body medicine,” people have found relief from a wide range of health issues.
Practicing yoga has been shown to be especially beneficial for cancer patients. Yoga is a practice of stretches and poses, with special attention given to breathing. Studies have shown that it can help with anxiety and depression, increase muscle strength and flexibility, and boost energy. It’s best to find a class that’s specifically designed for cancer patients. Ask your provider if there’s one at your treatment center, or try a beginner or restorative class.
Meditation, breathing exercises hypnosis, massage, tai chi, music therapy, and aromatherapy are all useful techniques to quiet the mind, relieve anxiety, and decrease worry. Many of these can be done while you’re at home, at work, or at the doctor’s office. More and more cancer centers have classes aimed at stress reduction and relaxation, so ask your provider for local resources. There are also many websites and smartphone apps that offer guided meditations and relaxation exercises.
Lifestyle changes. Making a few changes in your daily life can also make a difference in your anxiety and stress:
- Exercise—Regular physical activity is a known stress reducer. Start with a slow, easy routine, like walking, and add other activities when you have the energy.
- Quit smoking and drinking alcohol —The nicotine in cigarettes and certain ingredients in alcoholic drinks can make anxiety worse.
- Get plenty of sleep—Being fatigued can increase stress levels. If you’ve had trouble sleeping recently, try to add in short periods of rest and quiet time during the day.
- Avoid caffeinated and sugary beverages—Caffeine and sugar can exacerbate and mimic the symptoms of anxiety. A cup of coffee or an energy drink can have as much as 90 mg of caffeine. Black tea has upwards of 70 mg and green tea has 25 mg. If you need a caffeine fix, consider green tea.
Psychotherapy. Also known as “talk therapy,” psychotherapy involves talking with a counselor or therapist. Working with a mental health professional can help you work through your problems and learn coping strategies for when you feel especially anxious or worried.
Another option is to join a support group for cancer patients. Your treatment facility may host a support group where you can connect with people who’ve already coped with chemotherapy and may help you cope with it too.
There are also many online support groups that can provide access to thousands of cancer patients around the world who’ve experienced similar feelings as you. WhatNext, developed by the American Cancer Society, is just one example of the many social networks that may help. For a list of other online support groups, visit the American Cancer Society resource page.
Medication. Your oncologist may prescribe medications to improve your mood. Antidepressants, like Prozac and Zoloft, are effective for both depression and anxiety. Anti-anxiety medications like Xanax and Valium, may also be used for a short time if your anxiety levels are very high.
As with any medication, the drugs used to treat anxiety can cause side effects. Be sure to talk with your oncologist about the possible side effects you may experience from antidepressants or anti-anxiety medications. Understand and learn if the benefit of taking these medications is bigger than coping with the possible side effects.
While it’s perfectly normal to feel anxious and worried about your health as you begin chemotherapy, it’s just as important to reach out for help when the feelings become too overwhelming.