Understanding Anxiety and Breast Cancer

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Anxiety is an emotion that involves feeling tense, afraid, or fearful of future events and can come with physical symptoms such as changes in breathing, increased heart rate, or clenched muscles. Breast cancer is a serious medical condition that involves damaged cells dividing and spreading uncontrollably in the breast.

Since breast cancer can be a life-threatening condition, it is understandable why people with this condition may feel anxious. Nearly 42% of people with breast cancer also experience anxiety.

Learn about the relationship between anxiety and breast cancer, complications, treatment options, and more.

Woman with breast cancer feeling anxious, sitting on the couch with her knees drawn in.

JGI/Jamie Grill / Getty Images

The Connection Between Anxiety and Breast Cancer

Research suggests that a breast cancer diagnosis brings more distress for women than other diagnoses, even if good outcomes are expected; often, it can lead to anxiety. Many people experience worry, fear, and anxiety from breast cancer diagnosis extending through treatment and recovery, especially while managing adverse side effects, ineffective treatment and the spreading of cancer, or recurrence after remission (temporary recovery).

This is concerning not only because anxiety is unpleasant and can decrease quality of life but also because it can negatively impact cancer treatment, recovery, and chances of survival.

Latest Research

Anxiety does not necessarily go away after breast cancer treatment. Some new research has found that breast cancer survivors tend to experience more anxiety five to six years after their initial diagnosis than they do the first year after it. This may be due to concerns about recurring (returning) breast cancer.

Additionally, some research shows that having a mastectomy (breast removal surgery), being young at the time of diagnosis, and having other health conditions may increase anxiety over time.

Complications of Anxiety and Breast Cancer

When a person has breast cancer and anxiety together, they are at an increased risk of complications.

Anxiety with breast cancer can:

People with anxiety and breast cancer are less likely to survive the disease than those without anxiety. Additionally, breast cancer survivors with anxiety are more likely to experience a recurrence. However, there are ways to address anxiety and decrease the chances of it interfering with recovery and quality of life.

Talk to your healthcare team about how you are feeling. Let them know about worries, fears, and if you think you may be experiencing anxiety.

Diagnosis of Anxiety and Breast Cancer

While anyone can experience anxiety, extreme or frequently recurring anxiety is concerning. Anxiety disorders involve ongoing worries, fears, or apprehensions that may increase and decrease in severity. The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition (DSM-5), provides guidelines for diagnosing anxiety disorders.

DSM-5 Anxiety Disorder Diagnosis Guidelines

Some of the criteria for an anxiety disorder diagnosis include:

  • Excessive anxiety and worry more days than not for six months or longer
  • Difficulty controlling the worry
  • Significant distress or impairment
  • Restlessness, feeling keyed up or on edge
  • Being easily fatigued
  • Having a blank mind or difficulties concentrating
  • Irritability
  • Tense muscles
  • Difficulty sleeping

Breast cancer patients are at high risk of developing anxiety. Diagnosing anxiety as early as possible is important to prevent additional complications and improve outcomes such as survival and quality of life. Anxiety can be diagnosed by your healthcare provider or a mental health provider, such as a psychiatrist or psychologist.

Self-Test for Anxiety

Mental Health America provides an online self-assessment tool to help gauge anxiety levels. However, a qualified healthcare professional must diagnose mental health conditions like anxiety disorders. If you're experiencing anxiety, speak to your healthcare provider and share your online self-assessment tool results.

Treatment of Anxiety and Breast Cancer

Treatments for anxiety disorders include medications, psychotherapy (talk therapy), or a combination. Talk therapy addresses the root causes of anxiety and provides tools to overcome them, while medications can help relieve symptoms. The best treatment options depend on individual preferences and needs. Ask your healthcare provider if you need help deciding what treatment is best for you.


Medications most often used to treat anxiety disorders include:

  • Antidepressants: Even though these medications help with depression, they also help with anxiety symptoms.
  • Anti-anxiety medications help to reduce anxiety symptoms.
  • Beta-blockers help with trembling, shaking, increased heart rate, and other physical anxiety symptoms.

While benzodiazepines (a type of anti-anxiety medication) are often the first option for treating anxiety disorders, they are generally not the most effective for people with cancer. Instead, Seroquel (quetiapine), an atypical antipsychotic medication, tends to work better.


Some research shows that psychotherapy, or talk therapy, is more effective than medication for treating anxiety. Further, some research indicates that the combination of talk therapy and medication is generally no more effective than talk therapy alone.

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) is a type of psychotherapy that is highly effective for anxiety disorder treatment, both short- and long-term. CBT, including mindfulness-based CBT, has been found effective in treating anxiety, specifically in people with breast cancer and survivors of breast cancer.

Talk Therapy for Anxiety and Breast Cancer

Coping With Anxiety and Breast Cancer

Coping with anxiety and breast cancer goes beyond the individual alone. Social support, including family, spouses, and partners, can go a long way in preventing and coping with anxiety in breast cancer patients. Lifestyle changes, such as exercise and support groups, can also help people living with cancer and survivors of breast cancer.

Lifestyle Changes

People with anxiety and breast cancer can make lifestyle changes to improve their overall health and outcomes for both conditions. For example, physical activity is one of the most effective lifestyle changes for coping with breast cancer. Similarly, exercise has been identified as one of the best nonmedical ways to address anxiety. Though challenging, using the experience of living with cancer to grow, deepen relationships, face challenges, and reprioritize can also help.

Lifestyle Changes for Anxiety and Breast Cancer

  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine
  • Think positively
  • Practice breathwork
  • Eat a well-balanced and healthy diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Meditate
  • Incorporate exercise and physical activity
  • Quit smoking
  • Tell stories
  • Practice yoga

Support Groups

Support groups are a great tool for people with cancer and survivors to cope with cancer-related anxiety. You can find online or in-person support groups that specifically address anxiety, breast cancer, or anxiety and breast cancer.

For example, the Breast Cancer Post-Treatment Survivorship Support Group is an online community led by an oncology social worker that helps decrease anxiety, among other benefits.

Anxiety and Breast Cancer Support Groups

Support groups for anxiety include:

Support groups for breast cancer include:


A breast cancer diagnosis often comes with worry, fear, and feelings of anxiety that last through cancer treatment, recovery, and beyond. Anxiety can also lead to breast cancer complications, make treatments less effective, and impact recovery rates. This is why an early diagnosis of anxiety in people with breast cancer can help with treatment for both conditions.

Anxiety can be diagnosed by your healthcare provider or a mental health provider, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. If you have an anxiety disorder, treatment options may include psychotherapy, medications, or a combination. Lifestyle changes, such as exercising, eating a healthy diet, meditating, and joining a support group, can help you cope.

A Word From Verywell

Managing breast cancer from diagnosis through treatment and recovery can be scary. Fears about treatments not working or cancer recurring can cause anxiety. If you or someone you know is experiencing anxiety related to breast cancer, help is available. Reach out to your healthcare provider for support. Both anxiety and breast cancer are treatable, and it is possible to recover and live a long, healthy life.

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Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Ashley Olivine, Ph.D., MPH
Dr. Ashley Olivine is a health psychologist and public health professional with over a decade of experience serving clients in the clinical setting and private practice. She has also researched a wide variety psychology and public health topics such as the management of health risk factors, chronic illness, maternal and child wellbeing, and child development.