Cancer, Anxiety, and Depression

Medically Reviewed by Murtaza Cassoobhoy, MD on May 25, 2023
3 min read

Finding out that you have cancer can bring on intense feelings. You’re going through a lot, from treatment to side effects and maybe even changes in how you look at your life and future.

Each person is different. For some, these feelings can turn into anxiety and depression.

If you have anxiety, you worry a lot and feel tense. This can show up in a lot of ways. Your heart might beat faster. You may notice more headaches or muscle aches. It can change your appetite. You may eat a lot or not much at all. You could have an upset stomach or diarrhea. Or you might get a tight feeling in your throat or chest.

Sadness is a normal emotion that we all feel -- especially when we go through tough times. It may be depression if you have any of these symptoms for more than 2 weeks:

  • Feelings of sadness that don't end
  • Feeling emotionally numb
  • Feeling hopeless or helpless
  • Feeling angry or moody
  • Having a hard time concentrating
  • Crying a lot
  • No interest in family, friends, or activities you used to enjoy
  • Fatigue
  • Loss of appetite

If you feel any of these things, tell your doctor or counselor. There is help available. It’s important to take care of your emotional and mental health, as well as treating your cancer.

Your doctor may prescribe talk therapy (counseling), medicine, or a combination of the two.

If you’re depressed, there are several kinds of antidepressants. If you have anxiety, there are also medicines for that. You could feel better in as little as 2 weeks, but it can take up to 8 weeks for the medication to have an effect.

Therapy comes in many forms. You may work one on one with a psychologist or counselor. You could also join a cancer support group. Many large hospitals have support groups for people going through the same types of cancer. If you can't find an in-person support group, you might find one online.

Some organizations, like the American Cancer Society, have programs that match you up with someone who has gone through treatment for the same type of cancer as you.

Also, you can draw strength from your loved ones and community. Sometimes, people aren’t sure what to say or how to help. You can start the conversation and let them know what would be helpful.

Don't think that you have to put on a brave face and always be positive. Share how you really feel with a counselor, your cancer care team, and your support group, if you don't feel you can do it with your family. You can also write down your feelings.

Don't blame yourself for your cancer. Look for sources of comfort, which might include faith, meditation, and relaxation techniques.

Find activities you enjoy, either ones that have brought you pleasure in the past or some new ones you've been meaning to try. On days when you feel stronger, take a walk or spend time with loved ones or friends. All these things will help boost your spirits.

It also helps to be active. Exercise can make you feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally. Though you may not have the energy for something intense, gentler activities could be good to try. Check with your doctor first to make sure it's OK.

For some people, depression continues (or starts) after their cancer treatment is over and they’re in remission because of fear that the cancer will come back. The fear is so strong they may not be able to eat or sleep well, and they may miss follow-up appointments with their doctor.

For others, those feelings aren’t so intense every day. But certain dates can bring back the bad feelings (like birthdays or the date the cancer was diagnosed). During those times, it’s good to focus on what you can control. Keep your appointments with your doctor and follow any lifestyle changes they recommend to lower the chances of your cancer coming back.

Show Sources


National Cancer Institute: "Feelings and Cancer.

"British Medical Journal: "Psychological distress in relation to site specific cancer mortality: pooling of unpublished data from 16 prospective cohort studies."

National Comprehensive Cancer Network: "Depression and Anxiety for Cancer Survivors."

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Depression can be dangerous in patients with cancer, but help is available."

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Depression."

Dana-Farber Cancer Institute: "Your Emotions After Treatment."

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