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Anxiety and Depression In Young Women

Reviewed by: Cindy Miller, MSW

Updated September 13, 2013

Many women experience anxiety, depression (or both) from receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, undergoing treatment and navigating survivorship.

Young women generally have more psychological effects from their breast cancer experiences than do women who are older when diagnosed. Yet there are good ways to reduce distress, improve mood and restore overall functioning.

Concerns Faced by Young Women

After a breast cancer diagnosis, women of all ages may feel troubled about the unknowns that lie ahead. Young women have added worries about

  • their children’s reactions to the diagnosis and treatment effects
  • living to raise their children
  • the possibility of not being able to have children after treatment
  • their partner’s response and stress on their relationship
  • loss of self-image as a healthy young woman
  • the impact on their job, career and finances
  • their parents’ reactions
  • if single, how to handle treatment and care on one’s own, as well as dating

Young women experience more depression related to breast cancer than do older women. Those younger than 35 are most at risk for depressive symptoms.

Anxiety and depression arise from many factors, but young women often are especially distressed by    

How Anxiety and Depression May Affect You

Not every woman treated for breast cancer will experience anxiety and depression, but such effects are common. You may feel anxious or depressed at the same or at different times, from diagnosis through treatment to afterwards. These episodes may be brief (a few hours) or may last longer.

It’s important to recognize the signs of anxiety and depression, so you can begin self-care. Get help from your healthcare team if feelings last longer than a few days.

Anxiety symptoms include

  • intensive worry
  • fear
  • repetitive or unfocused thoughts
  • feeling agitated or restless
  • racing heart
  • muscle tension, shaking
  • irritability

Some depression symptoms are similar to those of breast cancer and its treatments, such as

  • sleep loss
  • sadness
  • fatigue
  • weight loss or gain
  • lack of energy
  • loss of concentration

Other depression symptoms include

  • feeling guilty or unworthy
  • anger
  • feeling helpless or hopeless
  • repetitive or unfocused thoughts
  • loss of interest in things you enjoyed
  • often thinking about death or suicide

If you ever had anxiety or depression before diagnosis, you are more likely to experience it after diagnosis, but anyone is susceptible. Mood changes can arise from treatment effects and some breast cancer medicines.You are not a “bad patient” or “weak person” for being depressed or anxious.

Depression and anxiety may lessen over time, but can reoccur.It’s important to take action if symptoms continue.

Who Can Help

Your medical oncologist and healthcare team (oncology nurse,oncology social worker) need to hear about what you are experiencing. Talking with them may help sort out how treatment itself,including medicines, might be causing your symptoms.

A social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist trained in cancer-related concerns can be a good person to talk with about your feelings of anxiety or depression.

Organizations such as LBBC and Young Survival Coalition can help lower your anxiety and depression by providing you with breast cancer information and supportive connections to other women.

10 Ways to Lessen Anxiety and Depression

These suggestions can help you avoid or reduce feelings of anxiety or depression:

  1. Discuss with providers what to expect from treatments.Find out about short- and long-term side effects—including reproductive,menopausal and sexual changes. Take action against side effects if they occur.Ask an oncology nurse how to relieve discomforts.
  2. Physical activity lifts mood, may fight weight gain and is important for your continued good health. Try to exercise everyday, even if only a 10-minute brisk walk or run.
  3. Make time for friends and fun. Being outdoors can help. Go to a concert; see a comedy show; explore a new location. Do things that aren’t related to your diagnosis or treatment.
  4. Pay attention to what you eat. Avoid alcohol, a depressant. To cut nervousness, reduce caffeine. Omega-3 fatty acids help mood and can be found in fish oil and flaxseed oil supplements, salmon, sardines and walnuts. Before taking any supplements, always consult with your healthcare provider first. Choose lean protein: dried beans, white-meat turkey and chicken, seafood, oats, quinoa, brown rice, dark green vegetables, seeds, and nuts.
  5. Mindfulness meditation is calming. Learn muscle relaxation, deep breathing, guided imagery or other meditation techniques. Use at bedtime to help with sleep problems. Yoga and qigong also may help. Many cancer centers now teach these practices.
  6. Share with others. Volunteering in your community redirects your thoughts and may help you feel better.
  7. You may want to renew your spirit by attending services or programs in a faith community.
  8. Join a support group, in person or online. Hospitals, breast cancer organizations and some religious and spiritual organizations have groups to help women share experiences and advice in a supportive environment. Some groups focus on the concerns of young women.
  9. Short-term “talk” therapy, sometimes called cognitive therapy, may help. Ask your healthcare team for a referral to a therapist who understands cancer issues.
  10. Medication may be appropriate for mood symptoms that interfere with daily life for longer than a few days. Talk with your oncologist to coordinate with your breast cancer therapies. Some antidepressants block the effects of tamoxifen, for example, so it’s important to be prescribed the right one.

This article was supported by Cooperative Agreement Number DP11-1111 from The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Its contents are solely the responsibility of the authors and do not necessarily represent the official views of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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