How to cope with a cancer diagnosis

Key points

  • You are likely to experience a range of emotions throughout your diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Shock, anger, sadness, sorrow, denial, guilt and anxiety are all very normal feelings.
  • Recognising these feelings and emotions can help you to cope better and feel more in control of your illness.
  • Sometimes your feelings can lead to anxiety and depression.
  • Signs of depression can include feeling low most of the time, lack of motivation, poor concentration and a change in your sleeping pattern.
  • Talking openly about your feelings and emotions can be a huge help. There are different types of talking therapy such as counselling or psychotherapy.
  • If your anxiety and depression are severe, you may need professional help.
  • You may also need support to cope with your feelings and adjust to normal life after your treatment has ended

Coping with Cancer video 

Watching this short video on what it feels like to have cancer and where you can get support may help:

What are the emotional effects of a cancer diagnosis?

It’s normal to feel upset when you are told that you have cancer. You are likely to experience a range of emotions throughout your diagnosis, treatment and recovery. These emotions or feelings are to be expected. Reactions often differ from person to person and there is no right or wrong way to feel. You may feel:

  • Shock and disbelief
  • Fear and uncertainty
  • Loss of control
  • Sorrow and sadness
  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Resentment
  • Blame and guilt
  • Withdrawal and isolation

Sometimes a cancer diagnosis can bring greater distress and can cause anxiety and depression. Read more about anxiety and depression

Feeling very up and down, as if you are on a roller-coaster ride, does not mean you are not coping. Understanding your feelings and emotions can help you learn to cope better. You may also feel more in control of your illness. It can take time to come to terms with your emotions, but most people learn to cope. 

Please see our Understanding the Emotional Effects of Cancer booklet for more information on the feelings. It may feel hard to believe, but a cancer journey can bring positive feelings too. You may experience great love, affection, closeness or gratitude. Experiencing cancer can even bring about personal growth and knowledge.

How do I cope with negative feelings?

Your emotions and well-being are just as important as your physical health. Remember, there is no right or wrong way to cope. Give yourself time to adapt and be patient. Try not to expect too much too soon and try to have realistic expectations.

There are many ways to help you cope with your emotions and anxieties. This can include a combination of talking, getting helpful information, trying relaxation techniques and doing other things that make you feel good. There are support groups and cancer support services around the country that can offer a range of services such as information, counselling, group therapy and complementary therapies.

Talking is one of the best cures when you are anxious, but it can be hard to do. You may feel awkward or embarrassed discussing how you really feel. Talking to a good listener can help, such as your partner, a close friend or relative.

Please see our booklet Who Can Ever Understand? – Talking about your cancer for more information on talking about your cancer. For some, religion and spiritual beliefs – even peaceful meditation – can bring a lot of comfort.

Talking therapy

Talking openly about your feelings and emotions can be a huge help. There are many types of talking therapy available, such as psychotherapy and counselling. These can really help if you have anxiety and depression. It’s important to stick with the talking therapy for a least a few weeks. If you feel that it isn’t helping, talk to your therapist or doctor about trying something else.

The road to healing and recovery is a personal one and you will learn many new things about yourself along the way. With the help of family, friends and the healthcare team, you can achieve a sense of physical and mental well-being over time.

How do I know if I am feeling anxious or depressed?

Anxiety

Anxiety is a natural response to a stressful situation, such as cancer. Anxiety can sometimes get worse and you may feel unable to cope. This can affect your body in many different ways.
Some of the physical effects can be:

  • Feeling sick
  • Loss of appetite
  • Dry mouth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Tense muscles
  • Fatigue
  • Sleep problems

The psychological effects of anxiety can include:

  • Fear
  • Dread
  • Worry
  • Negative thoughts

Anxiety can also cause you to behave or act in a certain way, such as:

  • Being irritable with others
  • Moody
  • Nervous
  • Angry
  • Tearful

Sometimes it‘s hard to know if anxiety or your treatment is causing some of these side-effects. For example, fatigue or extreme tiredness are common side-effects for people undergoing cancer treatment. Fatigue is also common in those with anxiety and depression. Do talk to your doctor or nurse if your energy levels are low. He or she might find the reason for your fatigue.

Depression

At times you may feel low and not your usual self. If these feelings last for several weeks, you may be depressed. Depression can sometimes develop slowly into a sense of hopelessness.
Depression is more than just feeling sad. It’s a significant medical condition that can affect your thoughts, feelings and ability to function in everyday life. It can occur at any age and is more common than you might think.

Your risk of developing depression depends on a number of factors. If you have good coping skills and lots of support from family and friends you may find it easier to deal with your cancer diagnosis. You may be at more risk of depression if you have less support, if you find it hard to cope with stressful life events or if you have a:

  • Past history of depression.
  • Past history of psychological problems.
  • Family history of depression.
  • Personality prone to anxiety.
  • How much support you can call on, and whether you want this support.

How can you treat anxiety and depression?

Always remember that depression can be successfully treated. First, there are many self-help strategies you can try. These include keeping an open mind, writing a diary, avoiding boredom, taking exercise, talking to a close friend or family member, and/or joining a self-help group or support group.

There are other forms of self-help, such as relaxation, visualisation or meditation. Some people find complementary therapies like hypnotherapy, aromatherapy or reflexology very helpful.

Please see our Understanding Cancer and Complementary Therapies booklet for more information on these therapies.

For more information on counselling or support groups in your area, call the Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 70.

What if I need professional help?

If you feel that your low moods are getting the better of you or you are finding it hard to cope, it’s important to get help. It’s not a sign of failure to ask for help or to feel unable to cope on your own. As a first step, try to talk to someone you know who is a good listener, or tell your GP. Medical social workers can also offer support to you and your family. If you are finding it difficult to get over a period of depression, your doctor may suggest a treatment. Often a short course of anti-depressants can work well.

Professional counselling can also be very helpful. A trained counsellor who is not involved in your situation can help you to express your feelings, worries and fears and make sense of them. Counselling can also give you emotional support and help you to make decisions and cope better. Counselling is available free of charge at some local cancer support centres.

To find out more about counselling call our Cancer Nurseline on Freephone 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre. Our cancer nurses can give you details of where free counselling is available and also provide confidential advice, support and information on any aspect of cancer. You can also contact the nurses by email: cancernurseline@irishcancer.ie.

How do I tell other family and friends?

It can be hard to tell other people the news that you have been diagnosed with cancer.

You may want to talk about your diagnosis, or you may prefer not to tell people straight away. Talking can help you to get support from friends and family. On the other hand, you may find it hard to cope with other people’s reactions when they hear the news. For example, they may fuss over you or be upset.

Call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre if you would like to talk things over with a cancer nurse.

You can also ask for a copy of our booklet Who Can Ever Understand? This booklet can help you find ways to talk about your cancer and to ask for the help and support you need.

How can I talk to my children?

A cancer diagnosis can affect an entire family. It can bring big and small changes for everyone. Try to keep family life as normal as possible. Being honest with your family will really help. It’s best if you or your partner can tell your children about your cancer diagnosis.

How much you tell them will depend on their age and level of maturity. Very young children do not understand illness and need a simple reason why their parent or friend is sick and has to go to hospital regularly. Most children over 10 years of age can take in fairly full explanations of why you are sick.

Remember: Cancer is impossible to keep secret

  • Even very young children can detect changes in family life, such as tension, unusual comings and goings and changes in your physical appearance.
  • It’s good to talk about cancer before an obvious change occurs, for example before your hair falls out due to treatment.
  • Children may find out the truth from someone else or discover it by accident. They may overhear a private conversation at home or at school.
  • If a child doesn't know the true facts, they could get misleading, scary information. Information about cancer can come from the internet, watching television or magazines. If children overhear conversations or feel something is wrong, they may not feel they can ask about it. They may worry or imagine that the situation is far worse than what it really is.
  • Whatever their age, not telling children may not spare them from anxiety or stop them realising that something is wrong. 

Ideally, the best person to tell your children is someone in the family who is close to them and who can deal with direct questions in return. 

Whoever tells them, make sure they give information that is accurate and suitable for the children's age group. It may be more manageable if you tell your children a little at a time. For example, ‘Daddy is in hospital to have some tests. We're not sure yet what's wrong, but when we do know we will tell you.’

During your illness, your children may experience a range of emotions, from fear and guilt to loneliness and isolation. Reassure them that your illness is not their fault. Even if they don’t show it, children may feel that they are somehow to blame.

Please see our booklet for more information - Talking to Children about Cancer: A Guide for Parents.

How do I tell other family and friends?

It can be hard to tell other people the news that you have been diagnosed with cancer.

You may want to talk about your diagnosis, or you may prefer not to tell people straight away. Talking can help you to get support from friends and family. On the other hand, you may find it hard to cope with other people’s reactions when they hear the news. For example, they may fuss over you or be upset.

Call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre if you would like to talk things over with a cancer nurse. You can also ask for a copy of our booklet Who Can Ever Understand? This booklet can help you find ways to talk about your cancer and to ask for the help and support you need.

Are there emotional effects after I finish my treatment?

Being told your treatment has been successful is wonderful news, but you can feel quite low and lost after your treatment has ended, especially during the first few months. Your feelings may only hit you once your treatment is over. Also, you may feel isolated and afraid when you are attending hospital for follow-up visits instead of regular treatments. You might feel on your own because your doctors and nurses are no longer there to support and protect you.

Feelings you may have include:

  • Fear of cancer coming back and worrying about every small symptom.
  • Loneliness without the company and support of your medical team and fellow patients.
  • Stress at having to deal with concerns such as finances, going back to work and family issues that may have been on hold during your treatment.
  • Isolation or guilt if your family and friends expect you to get back to normal before you are ready.
  • Anxiety and self-doubt about sexual and romantic relationships.
  • Anger at what has happened and the effect on you and your loved ones.
  • Depression or sadness.

Remember that healing your mind is also part of recovering from cancer. This may take some time. It’s natural to be afraid the cancer will come back. As a result, you might worry about every ache or pain, thinking the cancer has come back. Gradually these fears will fade and go away.

Do talk to your doctor or nurse about these feelings. Joining a support group or visiting a cancer support centre can help to ease these fears and emotions. You can also call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to talk to a cancer nurse in confidence.

We have more about how to cope with these feelings and adjusting to life after cancer.

Who can help?

There are many people ready to help you and your family throughout treatment and afterwards:

  • Call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre to talk to a cancer nurse in confidence. The nurses can also tell you about where free counselling is available, funded by the Irish Cancer Society .
  • Medical social workers at the hospital.
  • Oncology liaison nurses - these are nurses who specialise in cancer treatment.
  • Cancer nurse co-ordinators.
  • A psycho-oncology service at the hospital. This service helps patients and their families deal with the psychological aspects of cancer, such as depression.
  • Your family doctor (GP).
  • Support groups.
  • Cancer support centres.
  • Our online community, where you can talk to other people about cancer.

Where can I find a cancer support service?

There are many cancer support services and voluntary groups around the country. They offer services such as counselling, meditation, yoga and alternative therapies.

Call the Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 to find out about support services and free counselling in your area.

Useful websites

Where can I get more information?

We have a range of booklets to help you cope with the emotional side of a cancer diagnosis.

If you would like a free copy you can call our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or email cancernurseline@irishcancer.ie for confidential advice, support and information.

Visit our Daffodil Centres where our nurses can give you advice about healthy lifestyles and reducing your risk of cancer. Find your local Daffodil Centre.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Saturday, November 19, 2016