Cancer is an increasingly treatable disease. But if you, or someone you know, has recently been diagnosed, you may be experiencing a whole range of new and difficult emotions – such as fear, anxiety, stress, sadness and overwhelm. Knowing how to navigate a path through them can help make a difficult time a little easier.

October is breast cancer awareness month, when people all over the world show their support for people affected by breast cancer. So we’re taking the opportunity to look at some ways to deal with a cancer diagnosis – and manage the feelings that come with it.

Why we need to talk about cancer

Cancer is, fortunately, more treatable than ever before. New treatments are being found and developed all the time. But it’s also more prevalent. It’s estimated that one in two of us will have cancer at some point in our lives. So cancer is something that affects us all.

In addition to the obvious physical health issues associated with cancer, there are also mental health implications to a cancer diagnosis. It’s important to be aware of and manage these – not least because they can have a negative impact on treatment and recovery. But there are ways to manage your emotions, and to support your mental as well as physical health.

Emotions and cancer

As well as physical symptoms, and side effects of treatment, you may be dealing with all sorts of emotions that you’re not used to experiencing. This is perfectly normal. You may experience intense and fluctuating emotions at the point of diagnosis, through treatment and beyond. Understanding these emotions – and being prepared for them – can make things easier.

Your emotions may be different at different times, and vary according to your prognosis and treatment. You may experience something like the Kübler-Ross five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Or you might experience different emotions. There’s no right or wrong way to feel about your diagnosis – everyone’s different, and deals with it in their own way. You may feel anything from frightened to matter-of-fact about it. And you’re entitled to your own feelings.

Some common emotions may include:

  • Shock. You might feel numb, and not able to take the news in. You might need to have information repeated to you several times to be able to process it.
  • Denial. You might not believe or accept the news at first. While this can give you time to adjust, if it goes on too long it can risk delaying treatment.
  • Anger. You may ask “Why me?” and feel angry and resentful. Anger often comes from other emotions – such as fear and anxiety. It can be useful if it motivates you to take action. But it can also hold us back.
  • Overwhelm. It may all just seem too much, and you feel that your life is out of control. But there are ways you can start to feel more in control.
  • Stress. Finding ways to control your stress is important, as it can have a negative impact on your recovery
  • Anxiety. Feeling fearful and worried about the future is only natural. If anxiety is interfering with your daily life, there’s a lot of support available, including therapy and our Self-care course ‘Manage Anxiety’.
  • Sadness. You may simply feel sad. And that’s OK. Sadness is a normal response to any serious illness, and it may take time to work through.
  • Depression. Depression is treatable, and It’s important to seek help. If you’re depressed, you’re more likely to skip an appointment or miss your medication – and less likely to look after yourself and spend time with people who can support you.

Cancer and positive emotions

Counterintuitive as it may seem, a cancer diagnosis can result in positive feelings too. These may include:

  • Relief. If you’ve struggled with symptoms for a while, finally having a diagnosis and knowing you’re on the road to recovery can be a huge relief. As can having treatment that relieves those symptoms and improves your quality of life.
  • Motivation. For some people, a cancer diagnosis is a wake-up call. A reminder that life is short, and motivation to re-evaluate, re-prioritise, focus on your values, and get on with the things you want to do in the time you have.
  • Gratitude. Pay attention to things that bring you joy each day. They can be simple, like a great cup of coffee or observing nature. In his final TV interview, the writer Dennis Potter talked about the serenity of living in the present tense, celebrating “the now” – and seeing “the whitest, frothiest, blossomest blossom” from his window.
  • Hope. There are reasons to be hopeful. Your chances of recovery are higher than ever these days, and many people living with cancer can lead active lives.

10 ways to cope with a cancer diagnosis

Everyone’s cancer is different. Your treatment is personalised to you – and the way you cope with it is unique to you too. So the ideas presented here are suggestions – and not everything will be right for everyone. Pick what works for you.

  • Get the facts. Learning as much as you can about your cancer can help you feel more in control. Some people like to know every scientific detail of their illness and treatment. Others may gain comfort from inspiring stories of survivors instead.
  • Stay active. If you have the energy, try to live as normal a life as possible. Remain involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can. Think about the activities you value – and pursue them if you can. Don’t limit doing things you enjoy because you have cancer. Avoidance can make you feel worse. Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) can help with chronic pain – and it may help you deal with your cancer symptoms and treatment too.
  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle. It’s important to eat healthily and get enough sleep and exercise, so far as possible. This can help boost your energy levels, and combat the stress and fatigue you may experience with cancer and its treatment.
  • Talk to other people with cancer. No one understands what you’re going through like someone else with the same condition, or who has survived it. People in the same boat as you can give you tips, information and coping strategies based on their experience. Look for a support group in your area, or an online forum.
  • Use social media – or don’t. Some people find online support to be a lifeline, especially when friends are far away. Others don’t. You may want to be completely open about your cancer on social media – or not mention it at all. Either is fine. Or you could set up a closed, private Facebook group to share updates with close family and friends. Whatever works for you.
  • Review your priorities. Think about your values, and what’s really important to you in life. Find time for activities that align with your values and give you the most meaning.
  • Put your affairs in order. You don’t have to have a terminal diagnosis to do this. Putting your life in order and having an ‘extreme spring clean’ helps some people feel more in control. In her book Döstädning: The Gentle Art of Swedish Death Cleaning, Margareta Magnusson emphasises that ‘death cleaning’ is not sad – and is something you can do at any age and whatever your health status.
  • Stay positive. No one expects you to be upbeat all the time. But try to avoid ‘catastrophising’ and jumping to the worst possible conclusions, which you don’t have evidence for. While positive thinking won’t cure your cancer, research shows that it does have benefits. If you can maintain a positive outlook, it will help you throughout your treatment and recovery – and can even boost your immune system.
  • Practice self-care. What comforted you in difficult times before your cancer diagnosis? They will probably also help you now – anything from relaxation techniques to journaling to catching up with a friend. And it’s fine to set aside some ‘me’ time to be alone too. Do what feels right for you, and be open to trying new things too. Mindfulness meditation and focusing on the breath can ground you in the present moment, rather than worries about the future. You might find some of our Self-care exercises helpful.
  • Talk about your feelings. Whether it’s with your family, friends, a spiritual advisor or therapist, it’s good to talk openly about your feelings, and it can reduce anxiety. A therapist can help you process your emotions and provide some coping strategies. And you don’t even have to travel to a therapist’s office these days. Find out how you can get started from the comfort of your own home.

Other places you can find support and information to help you cope with a cancer diagnosis include organisations such as Macmillan Cancer Support, Marie Curie and Cancer Research UK. Dealing with a cancer diagnosis may be difficult and take time – but you don’t have to do it alone.