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Description and Etiology


Causes of anxiety in cancer patients may include other medical factors such as uncontrolled pain, abnormal metabolic states (e.g., hypercalcemia or hypoglycemia), and hormone-producing tumors. Patients in severe pain are anxious and agitated, and anxiety can potentiate pain. To adequately manage pain, the patient's anxiety must be treated.[6,7]

Acute onset of anxiety may be a precursor of a change in metabolic state or of another impending medical event such as myocardial infarction, infection, or pneumonia. Sepsis and electrolyte abnormalities can also cause anxiety symptoms. Sudden anxiety with chest pain or respiratory distress may suggest a pulmonary embolism. Patients who are hypoxic can experience anxiety; they may be fearful that they are suffocating.

Many drugs can precipitate anxiety in persons who are ill. For example, corticosteroids can produce motor restlessness, agitation, and mania as well as depression and thoughts of suicide. Bronchodilators and B-adrenergic receptor stimulants used for chronic respiratory conditions can cause anxiety, irritability, and tremulousness. Akathisia, motor restlessness accompanied by subjective feelings of distress, is a side effect of neuroleptic drugs, which are commonly used for control of emesis. Withdrawal from opioids, benzodiazepines, barbiturates, nicotine, and alcohol can result in anxiety, agitation, and behaviors that may be problematic for the patient who is in active treatment.

Certain tumor sites can produce symptoms that resemble anxiety disorders. Pheochromocytomas and pituitary microadenomas can present as episodes of panic and anxiety.[8] Nonhormone-secreting pancreatic cancers can cause anxiety symptoms. Primary lung tumors and lung metastases can often cause shortness of breath, which can lead to anxiety.


  1. Razavi D, Stiefel F: Common psychiatric disorders in cancer patients. I. Adjustment disorders and depressive disorders. Support Care Cancer 2 (4): 223-32, 1994.
  2. Forester B, Kornfeld DS, Fleiss JL, et al.: Group psychotherapy during radiotherapy: effects on emotional and physical distress. Am J Psychiatry 150 (11): 1700-6, 1993.
  3. Jevne RF: Looking back to look ahead: a retrospective study of referrals to a cancer counseling service. Int J Adv Couns 13 (1): 61-72, 1990.
  4. American Psychiatric Association.: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: DSM-IV. 4th ed. Washington, DC: American Psychiatric Association, 1994.
  5. Massie MJ: Anxiety, panic, and phobias. In: Holland JC, Rowland JH, eds.: Handbook of Psychooncology: Psychological Care of the Patient With Cancer. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989, pp 300-9.
  6. Velikova G, Selby PJ, Snaith PR, et al.: The relationship of cancer pain to anxiety. Psychother Psychosom 63 (3-4): 181-4, 1995.
  7. Glover J, Dibble SL, Dodd MJ, et al.: Mood states of oncology outpatients: does pain make a difference? J Pain Symptom Manage 10 (2): 120-8, 1995.
  8. Wilcox JA: Pituitary microadenoma presenting as panic attacks. Br J Psychiatry 158: 426-7, 1991.

WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: October 07, 2011
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.

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