Anxiety and Breast Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Melinda Ratini, MS, DO on April 17, 2024
4 min read

Learning you have breast cancer, going through treatment, and recovering could each take a toll on both your emotional health and your mental health.

Emotionally, any of these things can bring on a variety of feelings, including fear and unease. Research shows that about 1 in 4 people with cancer say they feel a lot of anxiousness.

If you’re anxious a lot and it doesn’t go away or it gets worse, there’s a chance you might have a mental health condition called an anxiety disorder. The symptoms could feel overwhelming, and they might interfere with your day-to-day life or with your desire to go to all of your breast cancer treatment sessions. That’s why it’s so important to reach out to your doctor for help.

If you get diagnosed with anxiety, your health care team can recommend treatments that ease the symptoms. They could also refer you to a mental health expert, like a psychologist or psychiatrist, who can teach you ways to manage anxiety.

You might have symptoms like:

  • Constant worry
  • Trouble “turning off your thoughts”
  • A hard time focusing, solving problems, or learning new information
  • Restlessness or feeling on edge
  • Crying often
  • Irritability, grouchiness, or being short-tempered
  • Poor sleep
  • A fast heartbeat, shaky hands, or tense muscles

If you have one or more of these symptoms almost every day and they keep you from leading your life, reach out to your doctor for help.

It’s not just getting diagnosed with breast cancer that causes some people to develop anxiety.

While you’re getting treatment, any number of things could make you more likely to develop an anxiety disorder. Your risk goes up if you:

  • Had anxiety in the past or at the time of your diagnosis
  • Have gone through physical or emotional trauma in the past
  • Don’t have many loved ones or friends to give you support
  • Aren’t getting enough pain relief from medications
  • Have breast cancer that isn’t improving with treatment
  • Struggle to do things like bathe or feed yourself

After you finish your treatment, your anxiety might flare up as you:

  • See your treatment team less often
  • Notice any changes in your health
  • Get back to work and family life

If your cancer goes into remission, the fear of it coming back could also cause your anxiety to flare, especially before follow-up medical appointments and while waiting for test results.

A mental health professional can give you ways to help you manage your anxiety before, during, and after breast cancer treatment.

You could ask your doctor to refer you to a licensed psychologist, counselor, or other mental health specialist who has experience helping people with breast cancer.

One-on-one therapy sessions can help you talk through your fears, including ones tied to changes in your life or your body. A type of talk therapy called cognitive behavior therapy can also help you understand and change the thought patterns that fuel your anxiety.

Group sessions with other breast cancer patients can give you emotional support by connecting you with others who understand what you’re going through. For some people, a combination of individual and group therapy works best.

Depending on your unique situation and needs, some other types of psychological treatments that may help are:

  • Couples or family counseling
  • Crisis counseling
  • Self-help groups
  • Relaxation training, like hypnosis, meditation, guided imagery, or biofeedback

When you’re choosing a mental health professional, ask if they’ll do a short introductory phone call with you. That can help you figure out if they’re a good match for you. Make sure you:

  • Feel safe opening up to them
  • Feel like they’re listening to you
  • Trust that they can help you

If after a few sessions you don’t feel comfortable with the counselor, consider seeing a different mental health specialist.

Some people with cancer benefit from taking anxiety medication alone or along with therapy. This type of medicine can ease fear, muscle tightness, trouble sleeping, and other symptoms.

Certain antidepressants can help treat anxiety disorders, too. If you’re taking the hormonal therapy tamoxifen as part of your breast cancer treatment, be aware that some antidepressants make it less effective, including:

Ask your doctors if an anxiety or antidepressant medication might be right for you, and have them explain the benefits and risks.

Along with talk therapy and medication, you can do other things to help take the edge off your anxiety:

Work movement into your day. Physical activity like walking, working out, yoga, and tai chi can help. It’s important to ask your doctor what’s safe for you to do while you’re getting treatment or recovering from it.

Get plenty of sleep. Let your care team know if you’re having trouble falling or staying asleep. And if you drink caffeine or alcohol, limit how much you sip -- especially toward the end of the day. Don’t have caffeine at least 6 hours before you go to sleep, and don’t drink alcohol at least 4 hours before bed.

Give deep breathing and relaxation techniques a try. For example, you could follow these steps:

  • Shut your eyes and take deep breaths.
  • Focus on each part of your body and relax the muscles in it. Go from your toes to your head.
  • Once you feel calmer, imagine a place you find relaxing (like the beach or a mountain trail).

Some other things that may ease your anxiety are:

  • A balanced diet
  • Quality time with loved ones
  • Meditation
  • Journaling
  • Guided imagery
  • Music therapy
  • Aromatherapy
  • Prayer