Cancer anxiety is a real phenomenon that can be extremely debilitating. It is normal to worry about cancer, but for some people, these worries can become all-consuming. If you’re struggling with cancer anxiety, know that you’re not alone. In this article, cancer survivors tell us ways they have coped, eased their anxiety, and allowed themselves to stop thinking about cancer, even if for just a moment.
What is Cancer Anxiety?
Cancer anxiety is a common condition that can be triggered by a cancer diagnosis or the worry of developing cancer. Being fearful of a cancer diagnosis, of treatment side effects, or of cancer recurrence is valid. You are not alone if you feel anxious about cancer. And it can be hard to understand if you haven’t experienced it yourself.
Cancer anxiety can manifest in many ways. For some, it’s a constant worry or feeling of dread. For others, it’s more like waves of fear that come and go. It is often a mix of feelings about the unknowns and the what-ifs of cancer and cancer treatments.
Being anxious over cancer is very normal. Negative thoughts pop into the heads of cancer patients and survivors often. Every little symptom immediately brings our thoughts back to cancer, which is common for most who have been diagnosed and even some that have not yet been told they have cancer.
What are the Symptoms of Cancer Anxiety?
We are like snowflakes; no two are exactly alike. Everyone experiences a cancer diagnosis differently. Yet, there is a common thread among us. We all experience anxiety at some level because cancer is one of the most stressful and devastating life events.
Cancer anxiety can manifest in different ways. Some people may experience mild symptoms, but for others, the effects can be severe. If you have been diagnosed with cancer and have 3 or more of these symptoms, then you are experiencing cancer anxiety.
- excessive worry
- muscle tension
- sleep disturbances
- rapid heartbeat
- heart palpitations
- shortness of breath
- chest tightness
- high blood pressure
- difficulty concentrating
- irritable or angry
- mood swings
If your symptoms are severe or you feel like you just can’t cope, it is time to ask for help. Even if your symptoms are milder, talking to a mental health professional can be a tremendous relief. Your cancer care team can refer you to someone trained to deal with cancer anxiety.
How to Overcome Cancer Anxiety
To overcome cancer anxiety, you must first accept and acknowledge that you are experiencing it. This can be the hardest step in moving forward toward calmer emotions. Many people with anxiety feel embarrassed or ashamed of their symptoms and are afraid to tell anyone about them. If you feel you have cancer anxiety, it is important that you speak to a doctor or mental health professional.
If your symptoms are mild, then you could try some of the techniques that other cancer survivors have used to take their minds off cancer. While useful, these techniques may be temporary and may not help if your anxiety is severe.
Below, I have listed 21 distraction techniques that have helped other cancer survivors.
Can’t I just take Cancer Anxiety Medication?
There are no distinct medications that are specifically used to treat cancer anxiety, as they are all used for general anxiety disorders. A combination of behavioral therapy and anti-anxiety medication is often used to treat cancer anxiety. Talk to your doctor to see if these medications are right for you.
21 Cancer Anxiety Mental Distraction Techniques
To find the best ways to overcome mild cancer anxiety symptoms, I asked a large group of cancer survivors and caregivers. We came up with 21 techniques others have found helpful in taking their mind off cancer.
1. A Walk in the Woods
A walk in the woods is a great way to reduce your stress. If you have access to nearby woods or a park with lots of trees, a walk can be very helpful to calm your mind and help you clear incessant negative thoughts.
I wrote about the many physical and mental health benefits of walking among the trees in an earlier article on Pink Ribbon Runner.
2. Movie Marathons
If you have the time, a movie marathon or binge-watching your favorite series can be a great distraction from cancer anxiety. Find some movies or shows that are more light-hearted and less thought-provoking. Comedy is always a good choice.
3. Reading a Captivating Novel
If you are a bookworm like me, reading is another great distraction. Find a fiction book that is hard to put down. Maybe one that will take you away to a distant place or time. Or try to laugh with some crazy characters in a funny book. Or perhaps a thrilling and action-packed novel is more your style. Whatever book you choose, get comfortable, immerse yourself and take your mind off cancer for a little while.
4. Listening to Music
Listening to music is a great way to take your mind off cancer. It can help you relax and feel better. Pick some relaxing music and play it softly in the background. Or you can put headphones on and listen as you go about your day. Easy listening, soft jazz, or classical music are all great choices. Or listen to some upbeat dance music and get your body swaying to the beats.
5. Spending Precious Time with Family
Activities and time with family and good friends were a favorite among the cancer survivors that I polled. It’s one of the most important things you can do for yourself during cancer treatment and beyond. So, plan to spend time with loved ones.
Perhaps go out to a nice restaurant for a healthy meal. Or pretend you are a tourist in your city and go visit a landmark with the family. You could also combine these techniques and go for a walk with your best friend. Or simply invite them over for a cup of herbal tea.
6. Online Video Games
Not only are video games a good distraction technique, but they also help with chemo brain. Video games, especially ones that involve words or numbers, stimulate our brains. They also ease the side effects of cancer treatments on mental focus, concentration, and memory. So, go ahead and play your favorite games online and take a break from having cancer-related thoughts.
7. Meal Planning
Meal planning is a great way to help take your mind off cancer. You can also plan out healthy meals and take comfort that you will be providing all the nutrition you need to help your body heal. So, grab your favorite recipe books, pen, and paper to plan next week’s menu.
Need help with menu planning? I wrote about 7 easy steps for meal planning for cancer patients.
There are also some helpful resources in the Pink Ribbon Runner Shop.
8. Laughing with a Good Friend
They say that laughter is the best medicine. And laughing with a good friend is one of the best ways to ease anxiety. A good belly laugh can help ease pain and calm nervousness. Laughter also releases endorphins that make us feel happier, more relaxed, and less stressed.
If you don’t feel up to laughing, talking things out with a good friend can also be very helpful. Hearing yourself talk about cancer anxiety can help you put it in perspective.
Before you start, though, it is a good idea to tell your friend that you are just looking for someone to listen. Your friend may not have any advice to give, yet they may feel the need to say something helpful. But be clear that just being there to listen and support you is enough. If you need advice, it is much better to get it from trained mental health professionals.
9. Dancing Away the Blues
Dancing can be a great way to relieve stress and anxiety. It is also a fun way to get some exercise, which is good for your body. There are many different types of dance, so there is sure to be one that you enjoy. Or simply put on your favorite tunes and move your body to the music. Dance like no one is watching!
10. Painting a Picture
Whether you are currently going through cancer treatment or have finished, art therapy can help you manage your cancer anxiety. It doesn’t have to be painting. Drawing, sketching, coloring, and sculpting are some other forms of art you could try.
There are several reasons why art therapy is so effective for people living with cancer:
- Art reduces stress
- It helps us express and explore our emotions
- Art reduces symptoms of anxiety
- We keep our hands busy, and limber
- Doing art eases pain
- Art classes can be happy social opportunities
Yoga is an effective tool for managing cancer anxiety. The poses and breathing techniques that yoga teaches allow us to relax and manage stress. Listening to the instructor and focusing on your body helps keep your mind occupied and clear of negative cancer-related thoughts.
Yoga has many health benefits for cancer patients and survivors. You can read about these powerful benefits in a guest article by yoga instructor, Tami, on Pink Ribbon Runner.
12. Decorating your Surroundings with Happy Things
What are some things that bring you joy? Placing happy or memorable items around your home can help distract you from thoughts of cancer. Surrounding yourself with things that bring you joy can help you feel more relaxed and at ease. So, take some time to personalize your space with items that make you smile.
Here are a few ideas to get you started:
- Hang up photos of loved ones or cherished memories
- Display colorful artwork or inspiring quotes
- Fill your shelves with books, movies, and music that make you happy
- Place a bird feeder in a window and watch them up close
- Grow a little indoor garden
13. Meditation or Relaxation Exercises
Mindfulness exercises, such as deep breathing, meditation, or relaxation techniques, can help to ease anxiety by giving you a break from thinking about your worries. They can also help to improve your mood and give you a sense of emotional control. Mindfulness can also help reduce pain and distress in cancer patients.
14. Physical Exercise
Exercise releases endorphins, which have mood-boosting properties. Exercise also helps improve sleep quality, which can help manage anxiety levels. And, finally, exercise can provide a sense of accomplishment and control during a time when cancer may feel like it’s taking over everything.
Talk to your doctor about whether exercise might be right for you. Then do this for yourself. Get up and get moving! Try this easy and effective beginner’s full-body workout at home to get started.
15. Spending Time with Pets
The American Cancer Society states that for some people with cancer, pets provide comfort and emotional support. They help us cope better with overwhelming emotions. Pets provide unconditional love during difficult and lonely times.
However, there are some precautions to take when you have a weakened immune system from cancer treatments. Tell your cancer care team about your pets. Be sure to keep your fur babies healthy, vaccinated, and parasite free.
16. Happy Hobbies
Hobbies are a great way to help cope with cancer anxiety. They provide a focus and much-needed distraction. Many hobbyists declare that they craft to take their minds off their worries. Hobbies can also help to increase your sense of control and give you a sense of accomplishment.
Some hobbies other cancer survivors have found helpful are knitting, crocheting, sewing, gardening, basket weaving, writing, and doing origami. But there are many other hobbies to try, so find one that makes you happy.
17. Learn Something New
Many cancer survivors said that immersing themselves in learning something new helped with their anxiety. Taking a class or reading a non-fiction book can help alleviate boredom. It can also give you a new sense of purpose, keep your thoughts focused and occupied, and provide you with something to look forward to after treatments are completed.
18. Mini Vacations
Getting away from it all for brief periods was another helpful tip from fellow cancer survivors. Planning out these mini vacations is a wonderful distraction from cancer. Like daydreaming, planning a mini vacation can whisk you away and minimize your anxiety. And going away for a day or a few days can help you feel “normal” amidst your hospital visits and treatments.
19. Plan for a Time after Cancer
Those who have been through cancer treatments say that planning events after treatments are finished can have positive mental effects. It keeps your mind focused on the end of treatments, which provides a sense of relief and helps keep you moving forward. It also keeps your mind occupied on things that you would like to do in the future, which can brighten your mood.
20. Maintain a Gratitude Journal
I love journaling. Like many other cancer survivors, I keep a gratitude journal. I write favorite quotes, happy sketches, things I am thankful for, and any other pleasant thoughts. Whenever I feel overwhelmed with sadness or worry, I look in my journal and it lifts my mood.
21. Getting a Good Night’s Sleep
When we are tired, it is difficult to cope with most things. Dealing with cancer anxiety is more than just difficult sometimes, it can be outright overwhelming. So, getting a good night’s sleep is essential. It helps clear your mind and gives you the energy to face the day.
If your treatments or anxiety is making it difficult for you to sleep, talk to your doctor or cancer care health professionals. They can help you find ways to get a good night’s sleep. You may also find these 10 tips for a deep and peaceful sleep helpful too.
Where to Get Help for Cancer Anxiety
We have suggested some things to try to distract you from thinking about cancer. If your anxiety is persistent or severe, know that there is support available that can help lessen the impact of cancer anxiety on your life. You are not alone and there is hope for you to get better. Seek the help of a mental health professional if you are overwhelmed, or just need someone to talk to about cancer anxiety.
There are many places to get professional mental health support when you are going through cancer. Ask your cancer care team for a referral. Most cancer centers have these support services available on-site.
If you are struggling and need to talk to someone now, there are other online support services you can reach out to.
Cancer anxiety can be overwhelming and exhausting, but these techniques shared by other cancer survivors can help you find peace amid chaos.