OHSU Knight Cancer Institute

Cancer and Mental Health

A supportive environment can help cancer patients deal with stress.

How to cope with anxiety and depression

Cancer can be frightening. Most people feel a sense of disbelief when they are diagnosed. This is usually followed by a waterslide of emotions like fear, anger, sadness and uncertainty.

These feelings often lessen with time. Most patients settle into a routine once they have a treatment plan.

Some, however, develop anxiety, depression or post-traumatic stress disorder. These conditions can affect your well-being, quality of life and even your ability to stick with treatment.

It’s important to recognize the signs and symptoms so you can get the help you need. Connect with our cancer social work team for support. At the OHSU Knight Cancer Institute, we are not here just to treat your cancer. We are here to take care of you as a whole person so you can live your best life.

This page includes information on:

  • Coping with anxiety
  • Coping with depression
  • Coping with PTSD
  • How to find a therapist
  • How to find someone who’s had cancer
  • Exercise
  • Yoga and mindfulness

We can also help you with:

Get help in an emergency

Call 911 if you or a loved one needs help now.

If you or someone else is planning to hurt themselves, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room.

You can also call Lines for Life at 800-273-8255.


Connect with our cancer social work team.

Coping with anxiety

Three people walking outside together.

Anxiety occurs in about 30% of cancer patients. While anxiety may ebb and flow during your treatment, you should watch for symptoms such as:

  • Feeling restless, wound up or on edge
  • Tiring easily
  • Lack of concentration
  • Irritability
  • Headaches, stomachaches, increased heart rate
  • Rapid breathing
  • Sweating/trembling

If you’ve had these symptoms on most days, tell your doctor. We also recommend that you talk to a therapist.

The National Institute of Mental Health recommends several ways to cope with anxiety:

  • Exercise
  • Healthy meals
  • Getting enough sleep
  • Challenging negative thoughts
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Talking to other people with cancer
  • Mindfulness exercises
  • Cognitive behavioral therapy
  • Medication

Coping with depression

Depression occurs in about 20% of cancer patients. Symptoms can include:

  • Inability to experience happiness most days for most of the day
  • Difficulty with sleep and appetite (although this can be influenced by cancer and treatment)
  • Anxiety, apathy, guilt, hopelessness, sadness and lower interest or pleasure in activities
  • Lack of concentration, slowness in activity, brooding
  • Frequent thoughts of death

If you’ve had these symptoms for more than three weeks, tell your doctor. We also recommend that you talk to a therapist.

Depression is a serious condition. Fortunately, it can be treated. Strategies include:

  • Exercise
  • Healthy meals
  • Regular bedtime and wake-up time
  • Talking to a therapist
  • Talking to other people with cancer
  • Medication

Post-traumatic stress disorder

Post-traumatic stress disorder is a type of anxiety disorder. Some people develop PTSD after a life-threatening experience.

Cancer and cancer treatment can cause PTSD for both patients and caregivers. Past trauma can also resurface. PTSD symptoms can include:

  • Anxiety
  • Flashbacks
  • Nightmares
  • Fear
  • Anger
  • Difficulty concentrating

Coping strategies include:

  • Talking to a therapist
  • Medication
  • Joining a support group
  • Mindfulness exercises

If you think you might have PTSD, tell your doctor. We also recommend that you talk to a therapist.

How to find a therapist

Talking with a therapist can help when you or someone you love has cancer. A therapist, also called a counselor, can help you cope with feelings and other challenges.

Check your insurance plan

Your health insurance provider has a list of therapists. Your plan will most likely cover some or all of the cost of therapy. You can:

  • Check your insurance provider’s website for therapists near you. Contact the therapist’s office to learn if they are taking new patients.
  • Call your insurance provider for help finding a therapist near you. You can ask how much of the cost your plan will cover. You might still need to contact the therapist to learn if they are taking new patients.

Ask at work

Patients may be able to get insurance or work benefits to cover meeting with a therapist.

Your work benefits might include an employee assistance program, or EAP. This program may include several free sessions.

Ask your human resources department if you have an EAP, if therapy is included and how much is provided free.

Ask your doctor

Ask your regular health care provider about a therapist. You may need to contact the therapist to learn if they are taking new patients and take your insurance. Your doctor’s office may be able to ask the therapist for you.

Ask family and friends

Friends or family members may know a therapist they like. Ask them about it, if you feel comfortable. You can also ask a friend or family member to help you look for a therapist.

Look online

Many websites have lists of therapists. Some of the most helpful websites are:

Take your time and find the right person

Be patient and keep looking until you find a therapist you feel comfortable with. They should understand your needs. This might mean finding a therapist who has helped other people with cancer.

You can ask to be put on a therapist’s waiting list if they are not taking new patients.

Get help while you look for a therapist

You may need to talk with someone before you find a therapist. You can contact one of these groups. Both have helplines.

How to find someone who’s had cancer

Talking with someone who has had cancer, especially the type you have, can be helpful.

  • The Knight Cancer Institute offers several support groups.
  • Imerman’s Angels connects cancer patients, survivors, caregivers and people with a higher risk of cancer with someone who has been there.
  • 4th Angel matches patients and caregivers with trained mentors of a similar age and cancer experiences.

Yoga and mindfulness

Decades of research show that yoga and mindfulness can help cancer patients reduce pain, fatigue and anxiety while improving sleep and quality of life. We offer several classes in yoga and mindfulness.


A group of people doing yoga outside.

Research at the Knight and other hospitals shows that exercise is a powerful form of therapy for cancer patients, both during treatment and after. Exercise helps with anxiety, depression, fatigue, physical function and quality of life.

Check out our exercise lab to learn more.