Anxiety and depression with secondary breast cancer

Anxiety and stress

Living with secondary breast cancer means there will probably be times when you’re anxious or stressed, and this is natural.

We can all deal with a certain amount of stress and tension but it can get on top of us if we don’t learn how to manage it. For some people, anxiety can become so overwhelming that it results in panic attacks, causing further fear and worry.

One way to cope with anxiety is to talk about your concerns with someone who can help. Your family and friends may offer sympathy and support, or you can ask your GP or specialist team to be referred to a professional who can help you.

There are various techniques and talking therapies specifically designed to help you cope at a difficult time. You may need to try a few before you find one that works for you. Some of these are listed below.

  • Distraction: learning to focus on the things around you so you can shut out negative thoughts.
  • Relaxation, visualisation and meditation: can be used separately or together to reduce stress and tension, relax the mind and body and help improve wellbeing.
  • Counselling: one-to-one counselling takes place in a private and confidential setting. You’ll be able to explore feelings related to your secondary breast cancer diagnosis – such as anger, anxiety and grief – making them easier to cope with.
  • Cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT): can help you change negative patterns of thinking and behaviour. Unlike some techniques, it focuses on problems you’re having in the ‘here and now’. Instead of exploring the causes of your distress or symptoms in the past, it looks for ways to improve your state of mind in the present.
  • Mindfulness: focusing on the present moment to reduce stress and improve quality of life. This means noticing sights, smells, sounds and tastes, as well as thoughts and feelings from one moment to the next.

If you think you might benefit from any of these techniques, your specialist team or GP should be able to help you access them.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, massage or reflexology can help you to relax and reduce stress and anxiety. Find out more about complementary therapies.

Low mood and depression

Being told you have secondary breast cancer, having more treatment and facing a shorter life expectancy can cause severe depression in some people.

You may describe your mood as being ‘depressed’ when you feel low in energy and are generally feeling down and lacking in motivation. You may feel that the enjoyment has gone from your life and you can’t imagine things getting better. Many people who are depressed find it difficult maintaining their usual social contacts and so feel isolated and unsupported.

If negative thoughts are having an impact on your day-to-day life and don’t go away within a few weeks or keep coming back, it may indicate that you’re depressed.

If you or those close to you are worried because you have some of the following feelings, you should talk to your GP or specialist team, who can refer you to a counsellor, psychiatrist or psychologist for help and support.

  • Loss of enjoyment and interest in everyday things and experiences.
  • Loss of interest in your appearance.
  • Persistent thoughts such as ‘I can’t be bothered’ or ‘What’s the point?’
  • Withdrawing from others (not going out or socialising).
  • Feeling persistently tearful and irritable.
  • Difficulty concentrating.
  • Difficulty sleeping or wanting to sleep all the time.
  • Loss of appetite or overeating.
  • Feelings of very low mood or suicidal thoughts.

You don’t have to ignore these feelings and struggle on. Realising that there’s a problem and getting help is the most important thing you can do. It’s particularly important to seek help quickly if you’re feeling very low or thinking about taking your own life.

There’s nothing to be ashamed of admitting that you’re feeling depressed or finding it hard to cope and you need help. Some people find it particularly hard to seek professional advice but it can help to relieve these symptoms and allow you to regain some control of your life.

What might help?

Emotional support from your family and friends and healthcare professionals can help.

Professional support such as counselling can also be of benefit and your specialist team, palliative care team or GP will be able to direct you to services in your local area.

Joining a cancer support group to meet others with a similar experience may also be helpful. Your breast care nurse, chemotherapy or palliative care nurse or local cancer information centre will be able to give you the details of any appropriate support groups in your local area. 

Breast Cancer Care’s Living with Secondary Breast Cancer meet-ups are held at a number of locations around the country. They provide the opportunity for people with secondary breast cancer to chat and share experiences with others with a secondary diagnosis. Watch Marie and Diane talk about their experience of support groups. 


Antidepressant drugs may be recommended if you’re thought to be clinically depressed.

It usually takes around two to six weeks before you notice the effects and start to feel an improvement in mood, although it may take longer to feel the full benefits. Antidepressants can be an extra support during a particularly difficult period. 

Last reviewed: December 2015
Next planned review begins 2017

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Please note that we cannot respond to comments. If you have any questions about breast cancer please contact the Helpline on 0808 800 6000.