It's perfectly normal to be anxious about chemotherapy, especially if you've never had it before.
"Chemotherapy and other breast cancer treatments make the disease real," says Dr. Mitch Golant, a health psychologist and senior vice president of research and training for The Wellness Community. "Before you start treatment, you may not have any symptoms and feel fine. So you may worry about whether you've made the right treatment decision — whether the benefits of treatment outweigh the side effects. For people who have more severe side effects from chemotherapy, these worries may be greater."
To help manage any chemotherapy fears you may have, Dr. Golant recommends first figuring out what your fears are: Are you afraid of chemotherapy side effects such as pain, fatigue, or nausea? Are you afraid of losing your hair or other changes to your appearance? Once you've determined what your concerns are, then you can talk about your specific fears with your doctors, your nurse, or a counselor who specializes in helping cancer patients. A support group also might be helpful.
If you can't say exactly what you're afraid of — just that the whole idea of chemotherapy makes you anxious and scared — Dr. Golant says that finding a chemotherapy support group may help. Breastcancer.org's Discussion Board community is a great place to talk with others online.
"Support groups can make the experience of chemotherapy more normal," he explains. "These people have been through chemotherapy and have coped with it and they can probably help you cope with it, too. They can help you talk about your fears, figure out what's distressing you, and then help you develop a plan of action that you can take to your healthcare team."
Explain your fears
Once you know your fears, you can tell your doctor or nurse exactly what you're afraid of — whether it's needles or having an IV put in, being in a hospital or clinic, or the way you'll feel while getting chemotherapy. If you can tell your health team what makes you nervous, they can usually figure out a way to help you. For example, if you're afraid of getting an IV put in your hand or arm, your doctor can make sure you have a sedative or a local anesthetic to numb the area.
"The key to the best treatment is good communication between you and your doctors -- this is especially true regarding managing any fears related to chemotherapy," says Dr. Golant. "Trying do deal with fear by yourself can make your anxiety worse. Information is power, so talking to your healthcare team or a support group can empower you and help you take actions that will reduce your fear."
Read and download Community Member tips for chemotherapy treatment (PDF).
Complementary/holistic techniques to reduce stress
While scientific research on most complementary therapies is relatively new and the studies are small, early results show that some complementary therapies may help ease physical and emotional symptoms in some people. When combined with conventional medicine, complementary therapies may offer a more integrated approach to healing. There are several complementary/holistic techniques that may help ease fear and stress:
- guided imagery
- music therapy
- progressive muscle relaxation
- support groups
- tai chi
Visit the Breastcancer.org Complementary & Holistic Medicine section to learn more about different ways to manage fear.