Coping with advanced cancer – Your feelings and emotions

It can be very hard to deal with the fact that you have advanced cancer. You may feel many different emotions. Many people feel fear, shock, anger, sadness, disappointment, hopelessness or guilt. At times you may feel overwhelmed by your emotions.

Having advanced cancer has been described as ‘riding an emotional rollercoaster’ - sometimes you may feel very low, while at other times you may feel very positive and hopeful.

In time, though, most people come through the initial shock and upset and find a way to cope.

In fact some people with advanced cancer find their daily lives are not affected very much. While it is true that some treatments can have some unpleasant side effects, often advanced cancer can be treated like a long-term illness, which causes problems from time to time.

Each person copes with cancer in a different way. There is no right or wrong way to cope, only your way.

If you are finding it hard to cope, look at the coping tips further down the page, which other people have found helpful.

Our video on Coping with Cancer and our webpage on the emotional effects of cancer have some useful information on how to cope with a cancer diagnosis.

If you find you cannot cope with your emotions or you are feeling depressed, don’t suffer in silence. There are many places to go for help. See the section on care and support for advanced cancer for contact details of where to get help.

Our cancer nurses can also support you. They can also put you in contact with a trained volunteer who is living with advanced cancer. Call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to talk to a nurse in confidence or to be put in contact with a Survivor Support volunteer.

How long will I live with advanced cancer?

No one knows how long anybody will live, but with advanced cancer your life may be shorter than if the cancer had not spread. If you have questions about what will happen next or how long you will live, we have more information on asking about your prognosis (the likely outcome of your illness).

You can also talk to your doctor or nurse at the hospital or to an Irish Cancer Society cancer nurse. You can speak to one of our nurses in confidence by visiting a Daffodil Centre or by calling our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700. You can also email the nurses at

Some common fears 

Fear is one of the most common reactions for people who get a diagnosis of advanced cancer. Two of the most common fears are:

  • Fear of dying
  • Fear of pain

Fear of dying

Many people think the worst when they are told that they have advanced cancer, and the first thing they think about is dying. But it is possible to live with advanced cancer for a long time. Some advanced cancers can be controlled for a number of years with modern treatments, and new treatments are being developed all the time.

Fear of pain

Another great fear about cancer is pain. However, some cancers cause no physical pain at all. Even if you do get pain, there are many different types of very effective painkillers to control it.


Knowing that your cancer will not be cured can take away hope, but even if a cancer cannot be cured it can often be effectively controlled. People can live with advanced cancer for many years.


Tips if you are finding it hard to cope

A diagnosis of advanced cancer can bring great distress and cause anxiety and depression.

There are some tips you can try yourself to cope with your emotions:

•    Join a self-help or support group. Many people find it very reassuring to talk to other people who are in a similar situation and facing the same challenges. Click here for information on support in your area or call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 for information about services and support groups in your area.

•    Get one-to-one support. Survivor Support is the Irish Cancer Society’s one-to-one support programme, providing emotional and practical support to patients diagnosed and living with cancer.

•    Get online support. There are special websites called online communities where people with cancer can write questions, share stories, and give and receive advice and support. Click here to join the Irish Cancer Society online community.

•    Talk things through. It can be a great weight off your mind to share your feelings and concerns. You could talk to a friend or family member if you feel comfortable doing so. You could also speak to a specialist nurse in confidence by dropping in to a Daffodil Centre or calling the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700.

•    Find out about cancer support services in your area. Cancer support services provide a range of helpful services such as counselling, complementary therapies, exercise programmes and other activities. They can also give you practical advice and support. See our Directory of Cancer Support Services for a list of support services nationwide, or call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 for information on services and support groups in your area.

•    Get some exercise. Exercising can boost your mood and sense of well-being and can improve your energy levels. The type and amount of exercise you can do will depend on your ability. Talk to your doctor or nurse about which activity will suit you best.

•    Gather information about your cancer and treatment. Understanding your cancer and its treatment and knowing what to expect can help to relieve anxiety and stress for some people.

•    Keep a diary or journal. Writing can help you to express your feelings, especially if you are unable to talk about them with other people.

•    Do things for yourself.  You may find that if you do things for yourself it helps to make you feel more independent and in control.

•    Avoid boredom. Keeping busy can give you a purpose and keep you from thinking and worrying about your illness. Make plans for the things you would like to do. Do things that make you feel good and are fun.

•    Try relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises, visualisation or meditation can help with anxiety.  The positive effects of these methods have been well researched. You may need some instruction with these methods at first, and they may not suit everyone. Some cancer support centres provide groups to help you learn these techniques. Find out more information on your nearest cancer support centre.

•    Try complementary therapies. Complementary therapies like meditation, acupuncture and massage may help to relieve the symptoms of cancer or the side effects of treatment. They can also help when dealing with fear, anxiety, hopelessness or stress. See more information on complementary therapies and cancer.

•    Seek spiritual support. Sometimes people with cancer cope better when they have spiritual support. When dealing with a serious illness, it is normal to think about the meaning and purpose of life. You may be afraid that you are going to die, even if your treatment is going well and your doctor has reassured you. For some people praying or talking to a leader or a member of your religious faith can be a way to find strength and meaning in times of stress.

•    Try to live in the present. Advanced cancer can bring a lot of uncertainty into your life. It can be very difficult to face an uncertain future and feel you are no longer in control. One way to reduce stress of uncertainty is to make your plans day by day. Letting go of the past and not worrying about the future allows you to live fully in the present.

•    Don’t suffer in silence
If you feel that your feelings are overwhelming you or you feel very depressed it is important to get help. Counselling can be very helpful if you are finding it hard to cope. Talk to your nurse or doctor - they may recommend that you talk to a trained counsellor or other specialist. Many local cancer support services provide counselling free of charge.

You can call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 for details of free counselling in your area or look at the Directory of Cancer Support Services.

Our booklet Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer has been written to help you understand more about the emotional effects of cancer. The information covers various kinds of emotional effects, in particular anxiety and depression, and ways to help you deal with them. By reading this booklet, you may learn what emotions to expect and, if you are finding it difficult to cope, to seek professional help at an early stage.

Call the Irish Cancer Society Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre for a free printed copy of the booklet Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer.

Next: How to talk to family, friends and partners about advanced cancer.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Thursday, October 8, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Wednesday, August 17, 2016