Anxiety, an Epidemic of Cancer Survivorship
Acknowledging Anxiety and Seeking Help
When discussing childhood cancer survivors, we often talk about cancer patients being free of the disease. However, while surviving cancer is a milestone to be celebrated, it is rarely ever the end of the journey.
Managing anxiety after cancer is a crucial aspect that cannot be overlooked. Cancer is a disease that keeps on giving, and the journey of survivorship encompasses various challenges. Cancer is a disease that keeps on giving. Unlike many other topics I’ve written on, I speak not just as the author of this article but as a person on that survivorship journey. As with so many others who share the survivorship journey, I am burdened by anxiety triggered by memories of having cancer, even in the most normal life events and occurrences.
At age 16, I was diagnosed with Stage IV cancer in my bone marrow, a rare form of lymphoma. The cancer tumors in my bone marrow did not have a treatment protocol then. Therefore, they threw every form of chemo to cure me. The journey was rough, and the side effects were ever-changing, debilitating, and always different. Reflecting back to this time, I would not wish it on my worst enemy. It is no wonder that cancer survivors battle with managing anxiety after cancer.
ANXIETY: A NATIONAL REALITY
Let’s first engage with the reality of what anxiety is with some general statistics:
- In the past year alone, an estimated 19.1% of the adult population had an anxiety disorder.
- Nearly 31.9% of adolescents suffer from an anxiety disorder.
- Adding the two totals up, half the population struggles with an anxiety disorder (NIMH, 2023).
Make no mistake; managing anxiety after cancer is a large-scale epidemic in this country that we don’t talk about nearly enough when we discuss illnesses that plague the masses.
Although no specific research with a large cancer survivor population has been done, one would think that childhood cancer survivors make up a significant portion of the anxiety-burdened population.
Being diagnosed and treated for cancer is highly stressful and physically and emotionally devastating. With increased research and development in cancer treatment, survivorship numbers are on the rise. While that is certainly cause for celebration, many cancer patients live with the lingering impact of the physical and emotional trauma treatment has caused them.
The National Institute of Health, in conjunction with the National Institute of Mental Health and the National Cancer Institute, speak of what clinicians have dubbed “scanxiety,” or anxiety related to the anticipation of the scan results and the concern of the disease getting worse or recurring. The last thing a cancer survivor wants to do is return to the worst period of their lives and re-live the horror.
As one cancer survivor put it in a 2011 Time magazine article: “Scans are like revolving doors, emotional roulette wheels that spin us around for a few days and spit us out the other side. Land on red, we’re in for another trip to Cancerland; land on black, we have a few more months of freedom.” (NCI, 2020)
MY PERSONAL JOURNEY
This cycle of anxious thoughts is an all-too-common occurrence that so many of us survivors go through. In my personal medical file, there exists documentation that tells whatever doctor is checking on me not to be alarmed by my high blood pressure or elevated heart rate because of my anxiety associated with medical facilities. This impacted me to the point that during my master’s program in Marriage and Family Therapy, I was one of the few who choose not to pursue an emphasis in “Medical Family Therapy,” which would have provided me certification to practice in hospitals and medical facilities because of my still existing anxiety.
In the clinical mental health world, there exists something called countertransference. Countertransference is when a clinician hears or experiences something that their client shares with them, and the clinician allows their own feelings to impact the way they interact with their client. I know all too well what a cancer patient is going through. I do not want them to deal with the fear and anxiety I feel being in their environment with them.
As a clinician, my job is to make them feel at ease, but countertransference would likely make them feel more stressed and anxious. Ultimately, my own therapist supported the decision not to pursue certification to practice in hospitals and medical facilities as I completed my Master’s Degree in Marriage and Family Therapy.
HERE TO SERVE’S ROLE
So, yes, I can confirm, from both a research and experiential standpoint, anxiety in childhood cancer survivors is indeed a prevalent and ongoing facet of the journey. At Here to Serve, we help families and patients through the whole journey. If you are now on the survivorship portion of your cancer journey and suffer from anxiety, consider therapy to help you with techniques and strategies from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. You can also consider journaling and listening to music. These are just examples. There are other techniques that can help with anxiety and have helped me. You can find out what works best for you. The recommendation here is not to go it alone. Get help. Here to Serve has excellent resources and the experience to guide you to the correct resources for your specific needs.
By Bryan Quintas, M.S., M.F.T.
Bryan Quintas is a Stage IV childhood cancer survivor. After battling cancer at 16, he has endured life-long effects from his treatments. Even so, he graduated from USC’s Annenberg School with a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications. He also holds a Master’s Degree from Fuller Seminary in Clinical Psychology, specifically in Marriage and Family Therapy. He has dedicated his life and career to helping others through life’s challenges.
- Managing anxiety and distress in cancer survivors. National Cancer Institute. (n.d.). https://www.cancer.gov/news-events/cancer-currents-blog/2020/cancer-survivors-managing-anxiety-distress
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. (n.d.). Any anxiety disorder. National Institute of Mental Health. https://www.nimh.nih.gov/health/statistics/any-anxiety-disorder
- Yi, J. C., & Syrjala, K. L. (2017, November). Anxiety and depression in cancer survivors. The Medical clinics of North America. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5915316/