Lung Cancer and Anxiety Coping Strategies

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Living with lung cancer can lead to anxiety in so many ways and at any stage of the disease.

The stigma of the disease and its reputation as a cancer with a relatively poor prognosis can add further unease to a journey already filled with potential triggers for anxiety.

Anxiety triggers can range from the uncertainty of treatment to the fear of loss of independence and death. Moments of transient anxiety are to be expected, but one study found that 43.5% of people with lung cancer experienced levels of anxiety high enough to interfere with their quality of life.

This article addresses managing anxiety when you have lung cancer.

coping with lung cancer

Justin Paget / Getty Images

Anxiety About Lung Cancer 

Cancer can lead to anxiety in many ways. Small amounts of anxiety may be helpful. For example, the anxiety about a tumor growing prompts people to make appointments and work out a treatment plan. Yet, persistent anxiety or anxiety that is out of proportion can have the opposite effect, reducing quality of life and impacting treatment.

There are many triggers for anxiety associated with lung cancer. Some of these include:

  • Worries about what treatments will entail, if they will be effective, and if they will have significant side effects
  • Worries about how there will be time to add cancer treatment on top of everything else in life
  • The fear of losing independence
  • The fear of recurrence with early-stage tumors, and the fear of progression with more advanced tumors
  • The fear of death
  • The fear of being alone or losing support as relationships almost always change after a diagnosis, either becoming closer or farther apart if friends are uneasy or have trouble coping
  • Concern about children and how the diagnosis will affect them long term
  • Worries about finances, especially since expenses due to cancer can add up while working less or not at all
  • The fear of suffering from pain or shortness of breath associated with lung cancer
  • The fear of a dismal prognosis since many lung cancers are not diagnosed until an advanced stage, when the outlook is grim

Physical Symptoms of Anxiety

Anxiety can cause both emotional and physical symptoms. When our bodies encounter a potential danger, they respond with a fight-or-flight response by releasing the hormones epinephrine (adrenaline) and cortisol.

In turn, epinephrine and cortisol may affect essentially every system of the body in some way.

Physical symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Sweating (diaphoresis)
  • Trembling
  • Palpations (with or without a rapid heart rate)
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Diarrhea
  • Chest pain (especially with panic)
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Light-headedness
  • Paresthesias (tingling or a pins-and-needles sensation)
  • Muscle tension

Ruling Out Other Causes of Anxiety Symptoms

With severe anxiety (panic), symptoms may be very similar to a heart attack or other medical conditions.

Since the sudden onset of symptoms such as chest pain and a sense of impending doom may occur due to lung cancer complications—for example, a blood clot that breaks off and travels to the lungs (pulmonary embolism)—anxiety as a cause should only be considered after these other possibilities are ruled out.

Emotional Symptoms of Anxiety 

Emotional symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • Restlessness
  • Feelings of worry that are hard to control or intrusive
  • Irritability and mood swings
  • Hyperarousal, a feeling of being on edge as something is about to go wrong
  • Difficulty making decisions
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • A feeling of detachment from your current situation
  • A feeling of going crazy and being unable to control emotions
  • Intense fear or dread

With severe anxiety and panic, people may experience a very intense fear or dread, and a sense of impending doom.

Lung Cancer Coping Strategies 

Coping with anxiety related to lung cancer can be challenging. For many going through treatment, it can seem like each time one issue is resolved or diffused, another arises.

Coping strategies may include:

  • Identification of stressors
  • Stress management techniques
  • Seeking out counseling when necessary

Name Your Anxiety and Identify Triggers

Naming your anxiety and admitting to yourself that you're struggling is an important first step.

It can be easy to overlook anxiety as a concern when some stress and worry is inevitable. Once you've taken this step, you can then begin to identify the triggers that lead to your anxiety.

Anxiety Triggers

Identifying the triggers for your anxiety is crucial in managing your symptoms. Once these triggers are identified, you may be able to address the ones that can be changed and, perhaps, spend less time worrying about those that can't be changed.

Stress Management

Stress management techniques can be helpful for nearly everyone, especially people who are living with lung cancer.

With cancer, some very helpful techniques include:

  • Asking for help and learning to receive help that's offered: Many people find it hard to ask for help. But holding back often backfires and leads to resentment. It might be helpful to keep in mind that loved ones of people with cancer often feel a sense of helplessness. By allowing your loved ones to help, you're benefiting them as well.
  • Knowing your limitations: Life won't be the same as before lung cancer. Knowing what you can comfortably continue with and what you must delegate to others can reduce a lot of stress.
  • Prioritizing activities: With limited energy, it's important to prioritize your activities. When doing this, give high priority to self-care and activities that bring you joy, not just activities you think you need to accomplish.
  • Planning for the unexpected: That sounds like an oxymoron but anticipating that your plans or schedule might change unexpectedly may help your feel less put out when it does.

Other measures that can reduce stress include:

  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Exercise within your limits.
  • Consider journaling your cancer journey.
  • Continue old hobbies or start a new one as taking time to do something creative or focus on something that isn't cancer can be priceless.

Relaxation Techniques

Many relaxation techniques have been evaluated for people with cancer, with some of these (e.g., deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation) showing clear benefits to quality of life. Many of these can be done on your own, though some cancer centers also offer classes in yoga and meditation to people with cancer.

Techniques may include:

Not only can mindfulness techniques help people with cancer cope with acute anxiety, but they may help with ongoing anxiety as new worries arise along the way.

A 2020 review found that mindfulness-based interventions such as these continued to provide benefits for a period of six months after they were used.



Social Support

Social support is extremely important for people living with cancer. Types of support may be broken down into:

  • Support from family and friends
  • Support groups and cancer support communities
  • One-on-one counseling

Many oncologists recommend counseling for everyone facing a diagnosis of cancer. In fact, oncology counseling is slowly being considered an essential part of treatment.

Your cancer center may be able to recommend someone for you to see. In addition, resources and a helpline for finding a therapist are available through the American Psychosocial Oncology Society.

Medications

For some people, medications may be needed and helpful for managing anxiety. Some medications are taken short term for acute anxiety and others are used daily and for life.

How a Support System Reduces Anxiety 

Forming a good support system can help reduce anxiety.

A study looking specifically at people with lung cancer found that women who had less of a sense of family support were more susceptible to anxiety during treatment. You don't need to feel despair if you're not in a family in which this is possible. Friends can function as family members as well as blood relatives can.

In the past, in-person support groups for lung cancer were sometimes helpful but challenging to attend due to a patient's fatigue and time constraints. Online support groups and communities have blossomed for people with lung cancer. They allow people to communicate worldwide with others living with lung cancer—often with the same subtype of the disease.

These groups can be helpful not only from a social support standpoint (allowing you to talk to someone who is living a journey similar to yours) but can help you learn about the latest in lung cancer management. Knowledge and understanding can reduce some of the anxiety that goes with uncertainty.

Summary

Anxiety that is severe enough to have a negative effect on quality of life affects nearly half of the people diagnosed with lung cancer. This can cause physical and emotional symptoms, reduce quality of life, hinder treatment, and even affect outcomes.

Fortunately, learning to manage stress, employing mindfulness techniques, and maintaining or improving social support can all work together to maximize your well-being while living with cancer.

A Word From Verywell 

Anxiety with lung cancer is common and can have serious negative effects on treatments and outcomes. The importance of addressing anxiety is beginning to be recognized by the medical community. Some oncologists believe that both stress management and therapy with an oncology counselor should be a central part of a treatment program (next to chemotherapy and other treatments).

If you are coping with anxiety, talk with your oncologist. When it comes to cancer, mental health and well-being are part of your physical health.

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7 Sources
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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