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Cancer Health Center

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Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress (PDQ®): Supportive care - Patient Information [NCI] - Anxiety Disorders


There are different causes of anxiety disorders in cancer patients.

In addition to anxiety caused by a cancer diagnosis, the following may cause anxiety in patients with cancer:

  • Pain: Patients whose pain is not well controlled with medicine feel anxious, and anxiety can increase pain.
  • Other medical problems: Anxiety may be a warning sign of a change in metabolism (such as low blood sugar), a heart attack, severe infection, pneumonia, or a blood clot in the lung. Sepsis and electrolyte imbalances can also cause anxiety.
  • Certain types of tumors: Certain hormone -releasing tumors can cause symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks. Tumors that have spread to the brain and spinal cord and tumors in the lungs can cause other health problems with symptoms of anxiety.
  • Taking certain drugs: Certain types of drugs, including corticosteroids, thyroxine, bronchodilators, and antihistamines, can cause restlessness, agitation, or anxiety.
  • Withdrawing from habit-forming drugs: Withdrawal from alcohol, nicotine, opioids, or antidepressant medicine can cause agitation or anxiety.

Anxiety from these causes is usually managed by treating the cause itself.

A cancer diagnosis may cause anxiety disorders to come back in patients with a history of them.

When patients who had an anxiety disorder in the past are diagnosed with cancer, then the anxiety disorder may come back. These patients may feel extreme fear, be unable to remember information given to them by caregivers, or be unable to follow through with medical tests and procedures. They may have symptoms including:

Patients with cancer may have the following types of anxiety disorders:


Phobias are fears about a situation or an object that lasts over time. People with phobias usually feel intense anxiety and avoid the situation or object they are afraid of. For example, patients with a phobia of small spaces may avoid having tests in small spaces, such as magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans.

Phobias may make it hard for patients to follow through with tests and procedures or treatment. Phobias are treated by professionals and include different kinds of therapy.

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