Iris Oncology
Navigating Emotions

Managing Cancer-Related Distress

What is Distress?

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) defines distress as an emotional, social, spiritual, or physical pain or suffering that may cause a person to feel sad, afraid, depressed, anxious, or lonely. Life events, such as a cancer diagnosis, can trigger these emotions.

Cancer can greatly impact your emotions since, for most, a new diagnosis is unexpected. You may feel lost as you are thrown into a new way of life, putting a strain on daily living.

Distress, though common, can feel uncomfortable. Studies show that 35-45% of all cancer patients experience significant emotional distress. We also know that emotional distress is common among caregivers and families as they too deal with fears and uncertainty surrounding a cancer diagnosis.

Causes of Cancer-Related Distress

Distress can be caused by various factors throughout cancer treatment. At the beginning of treatment, distress may cause feelings of confusion, which in turn might make it difficult to make decisions about your care. You may feel frustrated if you are encouraged to make quick decisions about treatment without enough time to explore your options. As treatment progresses, you may experience distress that impacts the way you take medications or your ability to attend appointments. You may also experience distress just before a scan (this is known as scan anxiety) or during a hospitalization.

Distress can manifest in your life in many different ways, making it hard to recognize sometimes. Some common symptoms of distress that patients experience are:

  • Sadness

  • Depression

  • Fear or worry

  • Anger

  • Poor sleep

  • Lack of concentration


Coping with Distress

Distress sometimes seems manageable while at other times you may feel overwhelmed, and your typical coping mechanisms aren’t helping. It is often difficult to determine how much distress is normal or when distress becomes extreme requiring you to seek help.

Determining when to seek help varies from person to person. It might be helpful to consider the impact stress is having on your biological functioning (like eating and sleeping) and daily activities (like working, attending school, or caring for the household). You might also consider whether you're experiencing difficulties in your relationships or with family because of feeling irritated, frustrated, or angry with others frequently. Major changes to your biological functioning, daily activities, and interpersonal relationships may be indicators that additional help would be beneficial.

If you do decide to seek help, there are professionals who are trained in supporting patients as they cope with distress. For example, a mental health therapist can assist with treatment decisions, anxiety, and depression, or help with practical issues that may be adding to your distress. A mental health professional may also assist you in measuring distress and determining its causes. Consider scheduling a visit with an Iris mental health professional for additional support around coping with distress.

Cancer distress is common and likely to impact most patients as well as their loved ones at some point during their cancer experience. Overcoming distress, although not often easy, may lead to resiliency. You may feel a sense of relief and accomplishment once you have emotionally adjusted to cancer. And, you may learn new ways to cope not only with cancer but also with other types of challenging life events.

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.