A cancer diagnosis can be a life changing and very personal event. If you or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer, it can be useful to remember that everybody responds differently to a cancer diagnosis, and not always in ways that you might expect. The type of support that one person needs may not be beneficial for another. It is important to trust that what feels right for you, is what you need.
In this article we look at some of the feelings which may come up after a cancer diagnosis, and talk about some of the ways that you may find useful to help you or a loved one cope.
Emotions You May Feel After a Cancer Diagnosis
Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can lead to a flood of intense emotions. You may feel sadness one moment and anger the next. Or you may feel nothing at all. Feelings of anxiety about your diagnosis and the future are also very common. It takes time to process your feelings and adjust to the changes that you're experiencing. As you move through this process, it's important to try and be gentle with yourself, or with your loved one. Time and support can help you to grieve and accept wherever you are at that moment. Finding coping strategies that work for you can help you manage more challenging feelings. Here are some typical emotions that you may experience after a cancer diagnosis. 1
- Shock, disbelief, and denial: Learning that you have cancer can cause initial feelings of shock and confusion, especially if the diagnosis was unexpected. Some people may also experience feelings of denial. You might not like to think about your diagnosis at first, or tell yourself that everything is fine. It can take time and several conversations with trusted others, such as your physician or your family, to let the news completely sink in.
- Fear, anxiety, and panic: Cancer can have a significant and stressful impact on your life, and it's incredibly normal to feel anxious or afraid of all of the uncertainties you're facing. People with cancer tend to experience anxiety intermittently at different stages throughout recovery. For some people, these feelings can occasionally build up and lead to panic attacks. With help, these feelings of anxiety can lessen over time, as you begin to adapt and cope with your new experiences.
- Anger, guilt, and blame: It is common to experience anger or guilt after receiving a cancer diagnosis. You may feel anger towards your doctor, family, the world, or yourself if you think your cancer could have been avoided or recognized sooner. People often wonder what they did to deserve cancer and feel guilty for putting their family through a stressful situation. These feelings are a normal part of coming to terms with your diagnosis.
- Sadness and depression: It' also completely normal to experience feelings of sadness. You may have intense feelings of loss about the changes to your body, the discomfort from the treatments, or how the disease has impacted on your life, for example. Approximately one in four people develop depression after a cancer diagnosis.2 Depression can appear as strong feelings of sadness and distress. Loss of motivation to do activities that normally make you happy is also a symptom. If these feelings are severely impacting your life, it can be helpful to seek medical advice and treatment.
- Loneliness: Going through a cancer diagnosis and treatment can feel like a lonely and isolating experience, even when you're surrounded by the support of your family and friends. It's important to remember that you're not alone. Nearly two million people are diagnosed with cancer every year, which means there are people all over the country who can relate to what you're going through.3
- Lack of control: Receiving a cancer diagnosis can also make you feel like you've lost control of your life. Your confidence in who you are and what you are capable of can be severely impacted. If you're used to taking care of your family, it can be challenging to let them take care of you. These can be difficult feelings to manage, but there are things that you can do to help.
Steps to Take to Cope with Your Diagnosis
Coping with a new cancer diagnosis is a unique and deeply personal journey. No two people will adapt, or cope, in the same way. It is important to find the ways that work for you. Here are just a few tips for coping with a cancer diagnosis that you might find helpful.
1. Take Time to Understand Your Diagnosis
At first it can be challenging to process any information about your condition. You may be feeling anxious or upset, and it's normal to forget or not take onboard many details about a complex disease while you're feeling this way.
When those feelings subside and you feel ready, it can help to gather more information about your condition and what you can expect from your physician or healthcare team, or from other credible sources.
When you speak with your healthcare team, it's important to share your problems and concerns. Ask any questions you have, even if they seem unimportant or if you've already asked them before. It might help to bring someone with you to listen and take notes on what your doctor tells you. You can also ask them to write down specific information so you can do more research later.
Many people are comforted by knowing what to expect throughout their treatment and recovery. Researching and understanding your diagnosis can help you feel more in control of the situation.
2. Accept Your Feelings
It's natural to experience a wide range of emotions after being diagnosed with cancer, including more challenging feelings such as fear, and anxiety. Finding ways to acknowledge and express those feelings can help.
Talking through your emotions with someone you trust and feel safe with can be useful. There are also many resources out there to help you manage your stress and anxiety linked to cancer. Writing your feelings in a journal, practicing meditation, or going for long walks some of the ways that you can use to process and accept your feelings.
3. Talk to Others About What You're Going Through
While it may be challenging at first, talking to your loved ones and other trusted individuals about your cancer diagnosis is important. Consider seeking support from friends and professionals when you need it. Your friends and family can help comfort and empower you throughout your treatment and recovery.
Some of your friends and family members might not understand the best ways to support you. They might try to give you unhelpful advice, ask uncomfortable questions, or bring up your diagnosis at inappropriate times, for example. In those cases, it can help to be honest with your loved ones and let them know how you feel. They might not realize how their words are affecting you.
You are in control of who you interact with and whether or not you want to discuss your diagnosis. While it's essential to have a supportive group of friends, family, and other individuals you feel safe with and trust, you get to decide if, when, and how you share the news with the people in your life.
4. Find a Solid Support Group
In addition to reaching out to your friends and family and professionals, joining a support group can connect you with people who have also been diagnosed with cancer. Connecting with other cancer patients can help you feel understood, and less lonely, and isolated. You can find dedicated support groups through your hospital, online, or often in your local community.
Studies show that support groups help people with cancer process their diagnoses and cope with anxiety and depression.4 People in cancer support groups also discuss helpful information about their illnesses, share their personal feelings and experiences, and sometimes discuss everyday life events.
Joining a support group can also provide an outlet where you feel comfortable talking about things that you wouldn't share with family.
5. Communicate with Your Doctor
After receiving a cancer diagnosis, it's useful to maintain regular and consistent communication with your doctor. Building a trusting relationship with your primary care physician through frequent communication can help you feel confident making treatment decisions together.
Studies show that the relationship and communication between a patient and their physician can positively influence the patient's ability to cope with cancer.5 Talking in detail about your illness could also help you feel more in control of your treatment and recovery.
Your physician can also act as another member of your support network, offering their professional advice to help you cope with any anxiety and sadness. They can prescribe medication or therapy to help you manage these emotions.
6. Consider Counseling
Professional counseling can help people work through their feelings surrounding a cancer diagnosis. The counselor can provide a safe place where you can express your worries and anxious feelings, and anything else that you would like to say, or that you might not feel comfortable talking about with others.
Specialist counselors can also provide helpful tips for managing cancer diagnosis anxiety and any other emotions you're facing. They're trained to listen to your thoughts and concerns and provide valuable feedback and suggestions to help you deal with difficult situations.
7. Keep Doing Things You Love
While cancer can significantly impact your life, it’s important to try to keep doing things you love, and finding new things that bring you moments of joy. Playing an active role in your life and maintaining a healthy lifestyle is one way to take control of your recovery, and planning activities that you like can help you manage cancer-related anxiety and depression. Look for small ways that you can take power back over your life and emotions.
Spending time on new interests like reading inspirational books, drawing, writing, or exercising can help take your mind off your illness.
Practicing yoga or mediation promotes relaxation, reduces anxiety, and can help you process your thoughts and feelings.6 While you might feel like you've lost control of your health, you can still take charge of how you live your life.
8. Be Patient and Kind with Yourself
Above all it is important to try and be kind to yourself. A cancer diagnosis comes with a lot of information and emotions to process. It's normal to take some time away from regular life to understand your illness and prepare for treatment.
Give yourself time to cope with the news and focus on taking care of your physical and mental health. Be patient with yourself and remember that the feelings you are experiencing will eventually subside.
You Can Cope with a Cancer Diagnosis
Receiving a cancer diagnosis may be one of the most challenging moments of your life. While there are countless tips for coping with a cancer diagnosis, the experience will be different for everyone. It's important to find the resources and support that will help you on your journey toward recovery. While you may feel overwhelmed by emotions and thoughts of the future, you can work through them day-by-day with the support of your family, friends, and healthcare professionals, and other trusted individuals.