Online Therapy Benefits For Those Living With Cancer

Medically reviewed by April Justice, LICSW
Updated May 29, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
Please be advised, the below article might mention trauma-related topics that include suicide, substance use, or abuse which could be triggering to the reader.
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You're not alone if you experience anxiety after a serious medical diagnosis like cancer. In addition to the physical stress it can put on your body, severe illness can take a mental and emotional toll, often leading to mental health conditions. 10% to 13% of all individuals with cancer also receive an anxiety disorder diagnosis. If you think you might be living with anxiety or could be at risk of this condition, there are a few ways online therapy, particularly for cancer patients, might support you in your health care treatment.  

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What is anxiety?

Researchers at the American Psychological Association (APA) define anxiety as the cognitive processes your brain utilizes to respond to danger, fear, hardship, or worry. When your brain perceives a threat, it releases neurochemicals that incite reactions throughout your body. This fight-or-flight response is designed to be temporary and fade after the danger passes. However, feelings can linger and worsen over time for people with anxiety disorders.  

The link between cancer and anxiety

A cancer diagnosis can be considered a threat to the brain. Many people experience anxiety due to the ongoing influx of stress hormones and worry associated with cancer. Cancer patients may benefit from mental health support in the following areas: 

  • Immediately after diagnosis
  • At the start of treatment
  • When treatment ends
  • During remission
  • Before scans 
  • If cancer returns 
  • If treatment goals shift from remission to palliative care

Recognizing anxiety in cancer patients

Anxiety can look different for everyone, but some common symptoms are seen for many types of anxiety disorders, including the following:  

  • Physical: Increased heart rate, stomachache, hyperventilation or other breathing problems, sweating, headache, shaking, unexplained pain, or muscle tension
  • Behavioral: Changes to sleep or eating patterns or the avoidance of people, places, and situations that may cause stress and anxiety
  • Psychological: Mood swings, an impending sense of doom or danger, persistently feeling nervous, "brain fog" or a "blank mind," stress, difficulty controlling your worry, trouble concentrating or making decisions, or disorientation

Emotional distress due to cancer diagnosis

Cancer is a disruptive force that can affect nearly every part of life. People who easily adjust to new situations and maintain emotional equilibrium may experience less distress than those who struggle with change. The emotional distress often seen in cancer patients can range from easy adjustment to severe mental health conditions like anxiety and depression. 

Healthy adjustment 

Healthy adjustment involves adaptation to life changes due to stressful events such as a cancer diagnosis. With healthy adjustment, you cope well with the emotional distress often associated with cancer and find practical ways to manage your feelings. 

Psychological and social distress 

Psychological and social distress may present as minor to moderate difficulty adjusting to life with cancer. You may feel some emotions related to vulnerability, sadness, panic, or anxiety that impact your quality of life. Working with a therapist may help you develop positive coping skills. 

Adjustment disorders 

Adjustment disorders are mental health conditions characterized by increased difficulty adjusting to significant changes in your life, such as cancer. A cancer diagnosis may cause you to experience symptoms like depression, anxiety, and other psychological problems adversely affecting your quality of life. Medication and psychotherapy may be recommended treatments. However, consult a doctor before considering medication, as some medications may interact with your cancer treatment. 

Anxiety disorders 

Anxiety disorders can occur when your symptoms progress to the point that they interfere with your functional ability in multiple areas of life and disrupt your daily activities. Cancer may cause you to f eel extreme worry, fear, dread, and an overwhelming sense of impending doom. Online talk therapy, stress reduction, and medication are often treatment approaches. 

The following are the ten anxiety disorders listed in the DSM-5: 

In the DSM-5, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD) is listed under obsessive-compulsive and related disorders, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is listed under trauma and stressor-related disorders. 

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The benefits of online treatment for those with cancer and anxiety

Online therapy is a more modern form of counseling but may have several benefits for those living with a cancer diagnosis, including the following. 

Safety

"For people with cancer, online therapy is both convenient and safe because you get to remain at home in your sanitized environment away from people who might be sick. This is important during and after chemotherapy or other treatments that weaken your immune system." — American Society of Clinical Oncology.

Cancer can come with immune system compromises, making it difficult to find support for someone with cancer. In addition, driving to and from weekly appointments and navigating stressful situations like traffic can harm the body. Being able to attend online therapy from a hospital or your own bed can be beneficial if you're unable to do so in person. 

Tools for practicing self-care

In-person therapy can sometimes take time away from your daily schedule. You often have to commute to an appointment, wait in a waiting room, and find parking. After therapy, you may have to drive home. You might spend two to four hours trying to navigate to therapy. With online therapy, you can save some hours in your day for self-care, which can benefit mental health symptoms like anxiety. 

Cost-effectiveness

Online therapy can be more cost-effective. The average cost of in-person therapy without insurance is around $100 to $200 per session for individuals and $175 to $275 for couples. These counseling services can be inaccessible for someone going through costly medical treatment. Online therapy is often under $90 per week and may include extra benefits, like webinars, journal prompts, worksheets, and online messaging.  

Flexibility 

Scheduling sessions with a face-to-face therapist can be challenging, and there may be heavy cancellation fees and policies. With an online therapist, you can often choose an appointment time that works for you, selecting the appointment from a calendar. Some therapists may offer times outside of standard business hours. After selecting an appointment, you may cancel by returning to your app and canceling the appointment without making a phone call or paying a fee. In addition, you can work with your therapist over messages to discuss your needs and health while undergoing cancer treatment. 

Continuous support 

Cancer can come with unique, unexpected events. There are many resources and support groups available to cancer patients to navigate these experiences. If you require support after hearing unwelcome news or struggling with a symptom during treatment, some online therapy apps offer 24/7 messaging with your therapist. You may be able to message your therapist at any time and receive a response as soon as they're available. 

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Online therapy options for anxiety

If you've recently received a cancer diagnosis and are having trouble adjusting to the changes, consider speaking to a licensed therapist online through a virtual therapy platform like BetterHelp. Cancer treatments often cause significant physical discomfort, making teletherapy's convenience critical for some. Through a platform, you can choose between phone, video, or chat sessions based on your preferences.  

According to a 2022 study, internet-based cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) provides comparable outcomes to in-person treatments, often at lower costs, with shorter wait times, and involving increased seclusion and convenience. CBT centers on identifying the connection between how you think and how you feel. With the support and guidance of a mental health professional, you may target maladaptive thought patterns and replace them with healthier habits. 

Takeaway

Cancer can be painful and challenging to manage independently, but anxiety can cause worsening pain, fear of death, and potential traumatization. If you're living with an anxiety disorder, consider contacting an online therapist for support. With online support, you can receive care from your home or hospital bed in a way that works for you.

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