Anxiety and Cancer: When to Seek Professional Help

Like many other people who have gone through cancer, the toll not just on my physical health but also on my mental health was, at times, simply overwhelming.

It’s only natural that we are going to be “anxious”. For most of us, this is probably the first time that we are having to deal with a possible life-threatening illness.

All the tests we have undergone. All the waiting for results - no wonder we are anxious. It’s all led up to this moment when you are told what you probably feared the most, “You have cancer”.

When does anxiety become a “medical problem?”

Well, for me, it was when I started experiencing “real” physical symptoms. I wasn’t sleeping properly, I was sweating, and I would often “shake”. My head would be in a “whizz,” and I couldn’t think properly; I felt dizzy and lightheaded. I was a mess, felt constantly like I wanted to vomit, no appetite. I wasn’t able to able control my emotions. I would switch from crying like I felt I wasn’t ever going to be able to stop to not wanting to engage with anyone or do anything.

But the first time I experienced a full blown anxiety attack, I honestly thought I was having a heart attack and was going to die. That pain was real! That tightening in my chest and feeling like I had a 280 pound (20 stone) person sitting on my chest was horrid and tremendously scary.

When you see on a TV show someone having an “anxiety attack,” it doesn’t really look like much. Someone always seems to be on hand to give them a brown paper bag to breathe into, and then everything is alright. What I didn’t realize was that there are different levels of anxiety. My symptoms had been developing for some time; I just never realized that anxiety could make you feel so physically helpless.

Causes of anxiety

Well, I think it’s pretty obvious that a cancer diagnosis is enough to make anyone “anxious”.

Lots of fears surface, such as:

The uncertainty of everything. Will I be ok? Will my treatment work? Will I be in pain? The anxious waiting for test results, biopsies, scans, etc. Will the cancer return? Will the cancer spread? Will I die? And so on...

These anxieties can manifest into physical symptoms, such as: being unable to sleep, sweating, nausea, feeling sick, stomach in knots, high blood pressure, diarrhea, heartburn, tremors, loss of appetite, chills, feeling dizzy, shortness of breath, and increased heart rate.

Seeking professional help

I realized after my “full-blown” anxiety attack that I needed to seek professional help. I realized I couldn’t deal with this by myself. I didn’t know how to.

My first “port of call” was with my doctor. Although she was very kind and empathetic in handing me tissues as I blubbered out all that I was feeling, she had limited time and, to be fair, was a “General Practitioner,” so was probably not best placed to deal with me.

She convinced me I was suffering from “depression” and handed me a prescription for anti-depressants. That was it. I took the tablets as prescribed and, to be honest, they didn’t make a scrap of difference to how I was feeling. So, I went back to see her. The anti-depressant medication was upped and away I was sent. This scenario played out several more times. With dosages being “upped”. Then a different anti-depressant would be prescribed. Then dosage upped.

Being referred to a psychiatrist

That was until I asked to be referred to a psychiatrist. That’s when things changed. It wasn’t depression I was suffering from; it was extreme anxiety. For some people, anxiety or depression can be treated with similar medication and it works, but for me, it didn’t.

My psychiatrist prescribed medication that was used primarily to treat just anxiety, as well as counseling sessions.

The two together, correct medication and counseling, started to help improve my anxiety. I was taught “relaxation techniques”, was “counseled” on how to “cope” with my fears. I finally started to feel “in control” of myself again.

The dizziness subsided; the palpitations and racing heart rate improved dramatically, and over the next few months, I began to start feeling “normal” again.

So, the moral of my story is: ensure that you are being treated by the correct people. Don’t be afraid to ask to see someone else.

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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