Coping with a cancer diagnosis

Every two minutes someone in the UK is diagnosed with cancer. More than 1 in 3 of us will develop cancer in some form during our lifetime. But how do you cope if it happens to you?

Getting a cancer diagnosis

The C-word fills most people with dread. According to a recent survey, the majority of people asked said that getting cancer was their number one fear. So it’s understandable that receiving a diagnosis of cancer can be very daunting.

“When people hear they have cancer, they think the worst really,” says Jane Fide, head of Maggie’s cancer support centre in Cheltenham. Fide has supported many people in the centre after their diagnosis. “It’s shock, horror. Cancer has such scary connotations. But most people want to say ‘OK, I’ve got cancer’ and get out of the hospital so that they can take in what’s happening.”

When you’re home, it’s time to digest the information you’ve received. “Once the initial shock has subsided, there is sometimes a flood of emotions that can be hard to deal with. But that’s normal. It takes a while for you to absorb the information and come to terms with the situation,” explains Fide.

Your emotions after a cancer diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently, so there are no set rules about how you’re likely to feel, or how you should deal with your emotions.

But, it is common to experience:

  • sadness
  • fear about the future
  • anger
  • guilt
  • denial
  • confusion
  • stress
  • anxiety
  • depression

“Some people get very angry, some are very tearful, most are extremely anxious and worried,” says Fide.

If you think you may be depressed, it’s important to speak to your doctor. Symptoms of depression include lasting feelings of sadness, losing interest in the things you used to enjoy, feeling constantly tired, having difficulty getting to sleep, loss of appetite and feeling that life is not worth living. Read more about the symptoms of depression when you have cancer (Macmillan Cancer Care).

When you receive your cancer diagnosis, you may be given a number of options about your treatment. This can mean having to make some complex decisions at an already stressful time. If you’re finding these decisions difficult or confusing, talk to a health professional from the hospital or your local cancer support centre. They should be able to guide you through all the information and help you make decisions about your treatment.

Your cancer support network

Many people find that having a network of friends, family and support services helps them to cope with the impact of a cancer diagnosis.

Family and friends

Talking to your friends and family can be difficult because you don’t want to upset them, but remember that they’ll want to support you. Sometimes the people close to you don’t know how to react. It may help to tell them whether you just need someone to listen, or to give you a hug, or to take some pressure off you by helping around the house.

Some people find that it helps them and their loved ones to go to doctors appointments or treatment sessions together. Your family may need some support of their own, so remind them that there are services to help them too if they need them.

Hospital staff

The doctors and nurses in your cancer unit have been trained to deal with all aspects of cancer. As well as giving you medical care, they can answer your questions and give you advice and support. They’ll be able to give you information about local support centres and support groups. Some hospitals also offer complementary therapies for people having cancer treatments.

Cancer support centres

Your doctor or specialist nurse will let you know if you have a cancer support centre, such as Maggie’s, in your local area. Cancer support centres often provide someone to talk to, and can offer practical and financial advice.

“At Maggie’s we provide a warm friendly environment that allows people to have space to think, talk if they want to, ask questions, cry on someone’s shoulder – whatever they need,” says Fide. “All our centres have a psychologist to talk through the more difficult aspects of having cancer. All centres have a benefits advisor to give financial and welfare advice. Our services are available to everyone affected by cancer, including friends and family, and are completely free of charge.”

You can find your nearest Maggie's centre. Maggie’s also has an online centre where you can post your experiences and read other people’s stories. You can also ask questions and get expert advice.

Helplines and support groups

Many people find it easier to talk to someone over the phone. There are a number of helplines, mostly run by charities, including:

A support group may suit you if you’d like to discuss your experience with other people who’ve been diagnosed with cancer. Your GP or specialist doctor or nurse will be able to put you in touch with suitable local groups. You can also search for cancer support services near you with our services directory.

Self-help and cancer

Feel more in control

When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, you can have so many questions that it can be overwhelming. How will it affect my family? How will I cope with the treatment? How will I cope with losing a body part? Am I going to die?

There are many unknowns, and it’s natural to feel that you've lost some control over your life. Being able to answer these questions will help you cope and regain that sense of control. If this has happened to you, try writing down your questions, then ask someone, such as your specialist nurse, when you’re ready.

Look after yourself

Taking care of yourself will help you to deal with the emotional side of your diagnosis. You might like to:

  • get some rest and relaxation time
  • get some gentle exercise
  • try to eat a healthy balanced diet
  • get a good night’s sleep
  • avoid drinking too much alcohol

Some of these can be difficult if you are feeling unwell and/or having side effects of cancer treatments. Find out more about controlling the side effects and looking after yourself at Cancer Research UK: managing your emotions

Stay positive

It can be hard in such a difficult situation, but trying to be positive can really help you to cope. Try focusing on the positive things that you do know, and avoid negative thoughts that may not be true. Discuss your worries with your doctor, nurse or supporter – they can often reassure you.

Try to encourage yourself whenever possible, and be proud of your strength and courage. Remember to enjoy the times that you’re feeling well, and have fun with your family and friends.

Fide says: “Often, people who have had a cancer experience stand back and reflect on their lives, perhaps make new friends, change their lifestyle, and embrace life more.”

Lung cancer: Peter's story

In this video, Peter talks about the symptoms that led to his lung cancer diagnosis, his treatment and the support he received from his cancer nurse specialist.

Media last reviewed: 21/02/2013

Next review due: 21/02/2015

Page last reviewed: 07/05/2013

Next review due: 07/05/2015

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