Coping with Cancer

Overcoming the Anxiety as a Cancer Survivor

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

From an initial diagnosis to treatments, recovery and beyond, cancer is an anxiety-filled journey from start to finish. And for many, that fear and anxiety doesn’t easily go away once a clean bill of health is received.

“Once people are cancer-free, that anxiety doesn’t just stop,” says Michael Ryan, Psy.D, a psychologist at Henry Ford Health System who works with cancer patients and their families. “Sometimes it shifts from anxiety over making it through the next day and getting to a cancer-free state to worrying over how to return to life and staying cancer free.”

Dr. Ryan delves into what people worry about post-cancer, how they can overcome this anxiety and what family and friends can do to help their loved ones.

What do people get anxiety about after becoming cancer free?
“The biggest thing is fear of recurrence,” Dr. Ryan explains. “Many people fear they will have to go through the same experience again. It’s a scary feeling because they don’t want to go through treatment, emotional stress and upheaval again.”

Other fears people may have revolve around the reintroduction of pre-cancer activities and responsibilities. From returning to work to resuming social activities and becoming intimate with a partner or spouse, it’s unexpectedly anxiety-inducing to go back to what life was pre-diagnosis.

Roles within families may shift once a family member is diagnosed with cancer, and it can be a difficult transition back to the “new normal.”

“For example, a son or daughter might take on more responsibility when a parent is diagnosed,” Dr. Ryan says. “For that parent, regaining a sense of normalcy and control over once-filled roles can be filled with anxiety.”

It’s also common for cancer survivors to become self-conscious over body issues and changes to their bodies because of the cancer and cancer treatment they received, which may cause anxiety or stress.

What does this anxiety look like?
In general, excessive worry about recurrence, and new lifestyle challenges post-cancer tend to be the biggest sources of distress, Dr. Ryan says.

Some people may begin practicing avoidance behaviors. They don’t keep their appointments, or get their follow-up scans or tests. They avoid interactions that might be important, such as conversations with their doctors or nurses about their health and any cancer-related news.

And on the opposite spectrum, people may overanalyze the little things.

“Some people worry that every little ache and pain popping up means the cancer is back,” Dr. Ryan says. “Just because you develop a little pain in your chest doesn’t automatically mean your breast cancer is recurring.”

How can people overcome this anxiety?
There are lots of ways to manage feeling anxious.

  • Get educated and stay informed. Keep appointments and stay up to date on all your health care needs. “People who are informed have the power of information,” Dr. Ryan says. “They know what signs and symptoms to look out for, when to seek medical guidance, and have peace of mind that they are still healthy and cancer-free.”
  • Engage in healthy behaviors. Eating a balanced diet, exercising, going to appointments, and being active and social are all good ways to not only maintain your health, but get your mind off the cancer and resume a sense of normalcy.
  • Talk it out. It’s also helpful to talk with someone, whether that’s a doctor, a family member or friend, professional therapist or anyone else you trust. Expressing your fears out loud and talking through them with someone else can help you get to the source of the anxiety and take the steps to change it.

As a family member, friend or former caregiver, encouraging these healthy behaviors in your loved one, being a calming voice of reason and just listening when your loved one is anxious are good ways to help.

If you or a loved one suffers from anxiety post-cancer, there is help. Go to henryford.com/cancersupport to learn more about our cancer patient and caregiver support groups.

Dr. Michael Ryan is a psychologist who specializes in the care of cancer patients at Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit.

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