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

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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:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Sweating.
  • Feeling faint.
  • Fast heart beat.

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

Phobia

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.

Panic disorder

Patients with panic disorder feel sudden intense anxiety, known as panic attacks. Symptoms of panic disorder include the following:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling dizzy.
  • Fast heart beat.
  • Shaking.
  • Heavy sweating.
  • Feeling sick to the stomach.
  • Tingling of the skin.
  • Being afraid they are having a heart attack.
  • Being afraid they are "going crazy."

A panic attack may last for several minutes or longer. There may be feelings of discomfort that last for several hours after the attack. Panic attacks are treated with medicine and talk therapy.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is rare in patients with cancer who did not have the disorder before being diagnosed with cancer.

Obsessive-compulsive disorder is diagnosed when a person uses persistent (obsessive) thoughts, ideas, or images and compulsions (repetitive behaviors) to manage feelings of distress. The obsessions and compulsions affect the person's ability to work, go to school, or be in social situations. Examples of compulsions include frequent hand washing or constantly checking to make sure a door is locked. Patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder may be unable to follow through with cancer treatment because of these thoughts and behaviors. Obsessive-compulsive disorder is treated with medicine and individual (one-to-one) counseling.

Post-traumatic stress disorder

See the PDQ summary on Post-traumatic Stress Disorder for information about this condition.

Generalized anxiety disorder

Patients with generalized anxiety disorder may feel extreme and constant anxiety or worry. For example, patients with supportive family and friends may fear that no one will care for them. Patients may worry that they cannot pay for their treatment, even though they have enough money and insurance.

A person who has generalized anxiety may feel irritable, restless, or dizzy, have tense muscles, shortness of breath, fast heart beat, sweating, or get tired quickly. Generalized anxiety disorder sometimes begins after a patient has been very depressed.

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WebMD Public Information from the National Cancer Institute

Last Updated: February 25, 2014
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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