Psychological Responses to Cancer

As we've said, about half of cancer patients adjust normally to being ill with cancer, leaving about half whose psychological problems may become debilitating. Of those, about two-thirds suffer from reactive anxiety and depression—that is, new anxiety and depression that are a direct response to the illness. However, when in pain, patients are about twice as likely to develop anxiety and depression than those whose pain is well controlled.1 Undergoing chemotherapy may be a particularly emotional time— often more so than during radiation treatments or surgery, because of concerns about unpleasant side effects that may or may not occur. Often the first chemotherapy treatments and those with very high chances of success are first associated with upbeat and hopeful feelings. If the cancer advances, the frequency of psychiatric problems among cancer patients increases, as might be expected.

Symptoms of Depression

Symptoms of Anxiety Symptoms of Panic

Insomnia Loss of appetite Irritability Isolation Fatigue

Loss of interest or pleasure in everyday things Sadness

Much less energy than usual No interest in eating Difficulty concentrating, remembering, or making decisions Constant feelings of guilt, worthlessness, or helplessness Crying a lot

Thoughts about death or suicide





Upset stomach





Difficulty concentrating Being easily startled Clammy hands Insomnia

Chest pains Feelings of choking Feelings of dizziness Feelings of unreality Hot or cold flashes Trembling Faintness Fear of "losing it"

It is, of course, always difficult to know whether some of these symptoms (poor appetite and sleep, etc.) are due to depression, medication, cancer treatment, or direct effects of the tumor. Regardless of the cause, the effort to clear up these symptoms is well worth it, to enable the patient to be as strong as possible during tough times. You may be surprised at how much a consultation with the doctor, psychiatric or oncology nurse, or social worker can help.

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