Dealing with Anxiety During Breast Cancer Recovery

By Lucy Wyndam

Around 77 percent of people experience anxiety while going through breast cancer, but as noted in a later study published in the Indian Journal of Psychological Medicine, anxiety is not necessarily a bad thing. In fact, it isn’t necessarily abnormal after a cancer diagnosis and, as noted by scientists, it “may even be a constructive part of dealing with problems.” For most patients, cancer involves uncertainty, worries about outcomes, and even spiritual questioning.

When it comes to anxiety, the question is, when does it cease to be ‘expected’ or ‘normal’; when does it require proactive strategies that can include therapy?

Frequent Signs of Anxiety  in Cancer Patients

It is important to be on the watch for signs you may need professional help to cope with your anxiety. Many studies on the general population have shown that feeling anxious for over five percent of your day (i.e. over 50 minutes a day) could indicate you are feeling higher-than-expected anxiety levels. When you are diagnosed with breast cancer, however, anxiety can be expected to last for longer periods. According to the study mentioned in the introduction, frequent symptoms of anxiety in women with breast cancer include a rapid heartbeat, tightness in the chest or shortness of breath, and digestive issues such as vomiting or loose bowels. Anxiety can also manifest itself in psychological ways – through frequent irritability, nervousness, insomnia, etc. When these symptoms are severe or frequent, or they interfere with your ability to rest, relate to others etc., it is important to see a professional for diagnosis and treatment.  

The Importance of Getting Help

When you visit a specialist,  they may use a diagnostic test to check for the severity and consistency of your symptoms. One commonly used test is called 4DSQ. It asks you to rate the frequency of different symptoms to check your level of fear, panic, etc. Sometimes, by simply listening to you relate your symptoms, your therapist will decide that treatment should commence and what type of therapy modality is right for you. Reaching out for help is the first step towards dealing with anxiety.  

CBT as a Tool for Women with Breast Cancer who are Coping with Anxiety

A 2019 study published in the journal Psychiatry Research found that cognitive behavioral therapy for symptoms of depression and anxiety in women, brought about a significant improvement for both conditions. Another study published in Clinical Psychology and Psychotherapy found that CBT was also useful for treating anxiety caused by a fear of recurrence of breast cancer. CBT has also been found to help with fatigue. In CBT, therapists essentially help patients understand the great extent to which small behavioral changes can improve your view of (and feelings toward) breast cancer and other challenges in life.  

Holistic Practices to Cope with Anxiety

Holistic practices such as mindfulness meditation, yoga, and Tai Chi have been documented in study after study as having a powerful ability to lower levels of stress hormone, cortisol. In 2018, The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) officially endorsed integrative therapies such as these to help breast cancer patients deal with anxiety, depression, and/or mood swings. In addition to the activities mentioned, they also recommended music therapy, acupressure and acupuncture, and stress management techniques. Their recommendation is the result of studies such as the 2011 study carried out at The University of Texas. In this study, researchers found that yoga had a powerful ability to improve the quality of life of women with breast cancer undergoing radiation therapy. Yoga and other holistic activities not only boost the mood and help fight fatigue, but also lower cortisol levels, thus helping to keep the ‘fight or flight response’ in check.

If you have been facing anxiety since your breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to try the natural route, know that there are many documented methods for doing so. From yoga to controlled breathing as well as CBT, you can cope with anxiety by nipping it in the bud – before it is allowed to manifest itself in panic and distress. Don’t let anxiety interfere with your relationships and ability to enjoy life; seek support from a professional quickly so you can get back on the path of an anxiety-free life.  

Lucy Wyndham spent over a decade in finance as an advisor, but on starting a family, she decided to take a step back and pursue her love of writing and sharing ideas.

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