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

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Cancer patients need different coping skills at different points in time.

The coping skills needed will change at important points in time. These include the following:

Learning the diagnosis

The process of adjusting to cancer begins before learning the diagnosis. Patients may feel worried and afraid when they have unexplained symptoms or are having tests done to find out if they have cancer.

A diagnosis of cancer can cause expected and normal emotional distress. Some patients may not believe it and ask, "Are you sure you have the right test results?" They may feel numb or in shock, or as if "This can't be happening to me". Many patients wonder, "Could I die from this?"

Many patients feel they are not able to think clearly and may not understand or remember important information that the doctor gives them about the diagnosis and treatment options. Patients should have a way to go over this information later. It helps to have someone with them at appointments, bring a tape recorder, or make a second appointment to ask the doctor questions and go over the treatment plan. See Talking with the Health Care Team in the PDQ summary on Communication in Cancer Care for more information.

As patients accept the diagnosis, they begin to feel symptoms of distress, including:

  • Depression.
  • Anxiety.
  • Loss of appetite.
  • Trouble sleeping.
  • Not being able to focus.
  • Trouble with the activities of daily life.
  • Not being able to stop thinking about cancer or death.

When patients receive and understand information about cancer and their treatment options, they may begin to feel more hopeful. Over time, by using ways to cope that have worked in the past and learning new ways to cope, patients usually adjust to having cancer. Extra professional help to deal with problems such as fatigue, trouble sleeping, and depression can be helpful during this time.

Being treated for cancer

As patients go through treatment for cancer, they use coping strategies to adjust to the stress of treatment. Patients may have anxiety or fears about:

  • Procedures that may be painful.
  • Side effects such as hair loss, nausea and vomiting, fatigue, or pain.
  • Changes to daily routines at work or home.

Patients usually adjust well when they can compare short-term discomfort to long-term benefit (for example living longer) and decide, "It's worth it". Questions that patients may ask during treatment include, "Will I survive this?"; "Will they be able to remove all the cancer?"; or "What side effects will I have?". Finding ways to cope with problems caused by cancer such as feeling tired, getting to and from treatment, and changes in work schedule is helpful.

Finishing treatment

Finishing cancer treatment can cause mixed feelings. It may be a time of celebration and relief that treatment has ended. But it may also be a time of worry that the cancer could come back. Many patients are glad that treatment has ended but feel increased anxiety as they see their doctors less often. Other concerns include returning to work and family life and being very worried about any change in their health.

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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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