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Anxiety and Stress Disorders

Fear/Anxiety about Cancer

03/01/2010

Question:

About 6 months after the birth of my child, I became obsessed with the idea that I had developed cancer and was going to die. It wasn`t just one type of cancer - I was worried I had breast cancer (it all started with a lump which turned out to be a lymph node), then ovarian cancer, then throat cancer, colon cancer, lung cancer etc, etc. Everytime I feel pain somewhere, I immediately think I have cancer. It`s been over a year now, and I`m still fighting this anxiety. It got better for a brief period of time when I got my period back, but the fear keeps coming back. What can I do? I tried to tell my husband about how I feel, but he doesn`t understand. The fear is becoming overwhelming. I find myself constantly googling symptoms of cancer. What can I do?

Answer:

This is a relatively common type of anxiety disorder -- fear of developing illnesses.  Sometimes, these fears and anxieties can cross over into more serious illnesses, including obsessive compulsive disorder.  The good news is that these anxieties can be treated, but you need to get help to get better.

People with anxiety disorder go through the day filled with exaggerated worry and tension, even though there is little or nothing to provoke it. They anticipate disaster and , with specific anxiety about illness, are overly concerned with every small ache, pain, twinge or cough.  Sometimes just the thought of getting through the day produces anxiety.

Anxiety disorder is diagnosed when a person worries excessively about an everyday problem for at least 6 months. People with anxiety disorder can't seem to get rid of their concerns, even though they usually realize that their anxiety is more intense than the situation warrants. They can't relax, startle easily, and have difficulty concentrating. Often they have trouble falling asleep or staying asleep. Physical symptoms that often accompany the anxiety include fatigue, headaches, muscle tension, muscle aches, difficulty swallowing, trembling, twitching, irritability, sweating, nausea, lightheadedness, having to go to the bathroom frequently, feeling out of breath, and hot flashes.

Your first step should be to contact your primary care doctor or a mental health professional.  In general, anxiety disorders are treated with medication, specific types of psychotherapy, or both.  Check out the national institutes of mental health website on anxiety for some accurate and valuable information.  (http://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/publications/anxiety-disorders/index.shtml).

Please call your physician or find a mental health professional soon -- you will feel better, but you have to start treatment first!

Good Luck.

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Response by:

Nancy   Elder, MD Nancy Elder, MD
Associate Professor
College of Medicine
University of Cincinnati