Managing Fear, Anxiety, Depression & Grief

Adjustment to Cancer: Anxiety and Distress (PDQ®)–Patient Version - National Cancer Institute

Patients living with cancer experience a range of emotions such as anxiety and distress. 

Anxiety is an emotional feeling of uneasiness, nervousness and fear caused by stress or a stressor.

Distress is emotional, mental, social, or spiritual suffering.

Patients who are distressed may experience feelings of sadness to a loss of control to depression, anxiety, panic and isolation.

These emotions can affect the quality of life of patients, including the lives of their loved ones. Patients with cancer have different levels of distress, depending on their ability to adjust to living with cancer. Below are a few terms used to describe the less severe levels of distress in cancer patients:

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 his or her 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 emotions, social relationships, and work life. Symptoms of anxiety disorder include extreme worry, fear, and dread. When the symptoms are severe, it affects a person's ability to lead a normal life.

Due to the risks of high distress levels in cancer patients, it is important for those who are having trouble coping with cancer, to consider talking with a professional about their concerns and worries. These specialists may include

  • Mental health professional such as a psychologist and psychiatrist

  • Social worker

  • Palliative care specialist

  • Religious counselors