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

Anxiety and distress can affect the quality of life of patients with cancer and their families.

Patients living with cancer feel many different emotions, including anxiety and distress.

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  • Anxiety is fear, dread, and uneasiness caused by stress.
  • Distress is emotional, mental, social, or spiritual suffering. Patients who are distressed may have a range of feelings from vulnerability and sadness to depression, anxiety, panic, and isolation.

Anxiety and distress may affect a patient's ability to cope with a cancer diagnosis or treatment.

Patients may have anxiety while being screened for a possible cancer, waiting for the results of tests for cancer, receiving a cancer diagnosis, being treated for cancer, or worrying that cancer will recur (come back). It may cause patients to miss check-ups or delay treatment. Anxiety may increase pain, affect sleep, and cause nausea and vomiting. Even mild anxiety can affect the quality of life of patients with cancer and their families and may need to be treated.

Patients living with cancer can feel different levels of distress.

Some patients living with cancer have a low level of distress and others have higher levels of distress. The level of distress ranges from being able to adjust to living with cancer to having a serious mental health problem, such as major depression. However, most patients with cancer do not have signs or symptoms of any specific mental health problem. This summary describes the less severe levels of distress in patients living with cancer, including:

  • Normal adjustment—A condition in which a person makes changes in his or her life to manage a stressful event such as a cancer diagnosis. In normal adjustment, a person learns to cope well with emotional distress and solve problems related to cancer.
  • Psychological and social distress—A condition in which a person has some trouble making changes in their life to manage a stressful event such as a cancer diagnosis. Help from a professional to learn new coping skills may be needed.
  • Adjustment disorder —A condition in which a person has a lot of trouble making changes in his or her life to manage a stressful event such as a cancer diagnosis. Symptoms such as depression, anxiety, or other emotional, social, or behavioral problems occur and worsen the person's quality of life. Medicine and help from a professional to make these changes may be needed.
  • Anxiety disorder—A condition in which a person has a lot of anxiety from a stressful event such as a cancer diagnosis. The anxiety affects his or her ability to manage their emotions, social relationships, and work life. Medicine and help from a professional to manage the anxiety may be needed.

This summary is about adjustment to cancer, anxiety, and distress in adults with cancer.

See the following PDQ summaries for information on these mental health problems:

  • Depression
  • Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
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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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