Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 06/2019

Anxiety may be described as feeling nervous, on edge, or worried. It is a normal emotion that alerts your body to respond to a threat. But intense and long-term anxiety is a disorder. It may interfere with your daily life and relationships.

Acute anxiety occurs in short episodes that end quickly. Chronic anxiety remains over time.

Anxiety symptoms may be mild or severe. And some of the symptoms may be similar to those of depression. Often, this is because depression occurs along with anxiety.

Anxiety and cancer

Many people with cancer have symptoms of anxiety. A cancer diagnosis may trigger these feelings:

  • Worry over losing independence

Anxiety may make it harder to cope with cancer treatment. It may also reduce your ability to make choices about your care. As a result, identifying and managing anxiety are important parts of cancer treatment.

Acute anxiety symptoms

You may often experience short periods of the symptoms listed below. A panic attack is when a person has all of these symptoms at once:

  • Feeling intense fear or dread

  • Feeling detached from yourself or your surroundings

  • Heart palpitations or rapid heartbeat

  • High blood pressure

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling suffocated

  • Sweating

  • Chills

  • Dizziness or feeling lightheaded

  • Trembling

  • Nausea, diarrhea, heartburn, or a change in appetite

  • Abdominal pain

Chronic anxiety symptoms

Chronic anxiety typically last for a longer time. They may include acute anxiety episodes along with 1 or more of the symptoms below:

  • Excessive worrying

  • Restlessness

  • Muscle tension

  • Insomnia, which is not being able to fall or stay asleep

  • Irritability

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty concentrating

  • Indecision, which is having trouble making decisions

It is important to tell your health care team if you experience any of these symptoms. However, such symptoms may not be related to anxiety. Some may be side effects of the cancer or cancer treatment. For example, fatigue and trouble sleeping or concentrating are common side effects of cancer and cancer treatment.

Risk factors for anxiety

People with cancer are more likely to feel anxiety if they have these risk factors:

  • Previous diagnosis of anxiety or depression

  • Family history of anxiety or depression

  • Lack of support of friends or family

  • Financial burdens

Screening for anxiety

The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) recommends screening for anxiety. Screenings should occur at the time of a cancer diagnosis and at regular periods during your treatment and recovery.

Treatment for anxiety will depend on your symptoms and how often you have them.

Although it may be hard, try to talk about anxiety openly with your health care team. This will help them take care of your concerns and create a treatment plan. Discuss the following:

  • Your feelings

  • Specific sources of your fears

  • Physical symptoms

  • The effect on your daily life

Treatment types

There are a variety of ways to cope with anxiety. Many are used together. Talk with your doctor or a professional counselor to find the best options for you.

  • Relaxation techniques. Relaxation techniques may be used alone or along with other types of treatment. Some of the following methods may be done with little guidance. Others may require the help of an instructor.
    • Deep breathing

    • Progressive muscle relaxation. This is a technique that involves tightening and then relaxing muscles. You begin at the toes or head and slowly relax the muscles across the body.

    • Guided imagery. This is the use of words and sounds to help you imagine positive settings, experiences, and feelings.

    • Meditation. This is a practice of focusing attention to achieve a sense of well-being in the present moment and reduce stress.

    • Hypnosis

    • Biofeedback. This involves paying attention to and controlling signals from the body, such as heart rate. Signals from the body are measured with painless electrical sensors, called electrodes.

    • Yoga. This is the use of breathing and posture exercises to promote relaxation.

  • Psychological Treatment. Mental health professionals include licensed counselors, psychologists, and psychiatrists. They provide tools to improve coping skills, develop a support system, and reshape negative thoughts. Options include individual therapy, couples or family therapy, and group therapy. In addition, psychiatrists are mental health professionals who can prescribe medications. Learn more about counseling.

  • Medication. If your anxiety symptoms are moderate to severe, you may benefit from medication. Different types of medications are available. Your doctor will select the most appropriate medication based on these factors:

    • Your needs

    • Potential side effects

    • Other medications you take

    • Your medical history

Tell your doctor about all medications and supplements you take. Some may interfere with types of anti-anxiety medications.

Some medications work quickly to treat acute anxiety. Medications used to treat chronic anxiety may take weeks. It often takes up to 6 to 8 weeks for these medications to have full effect.

Medication may not fully treat anxiety unless it is used with psychological treatment.


Keep your health care team up to date on your visits to a mental health professional and your treatments. Let them know how treatment is working and if you have any new symptoms.

If anxiety symptoms have not decreased after 8 weeks of treatment:

  • Consider other treatment options, such as trying medication or switching to another type of medication

  • Consider adding counseling to your treatment plan

You and your doctor can talk about these options earlier, if needed.

Related Resources

Managing Stress

Finding Support and Information

How to Cope With the Impact of Cancer on Your Mental Health

How People With Cancer Can Benefit From Online Therapy

More Information

CancerCare: Counseling

National Cancer Institute: Anxiety and Distress

ASCO answers; Anxiety and DepressionDownload ASCO's free Anxiety and Depression fact sheet. This 1-page printable PDF offers an introduction to anxiety and depression, including ways they can affect cancer care, treatment options, and a checklist of potential risk factors and symptoms. Order printed copies of this fact sheet from the ASCO Store.