Dealing with the diagnosis

You may feel shocked when you are told you have cancer.

It is often difficult to take in the diagnosis immediately – you might hear the words but not believe them. There are many reasons for this shock: cancer is a serious disease, and most people feel afraid and unsure about treatment, side effects and the likely impact on family and work.

Cancer can also feel like a threat to your way of life. You may wonder if you will be the same person as before, if you will be able to do the things you usually do and if your relationships will change. Having these thoughts and feelings is a natural reaction to a difficult situation. Knowing this can help you find ways to manage these feelings.

Over time, you may find that your strong feelings about cancer fade. Although your life has changed in some ways, in other ways it goes back to a more regular pattern and you feel more or less like your usual self. However, this may not happen, instead you may continue to feel worried and upset and these feelings can interfere with your life.

Common reactions

For many people, the first few weeks after they are diagnosed with cancer are very stressful. You may have trouble thinking clearly, eating or sleeping. This can last from several days to several weeks. It’s common to feel that you are on an emotional rollercoaster.

Feelings you may experience:

  • Fear - It’s frightening to hear you have cancer. Most people cope better when they know what to expect.
  • Anger - You may feel angry with health care professionals, your God, or even yourself if you think you may have contributed to the cancer or a delay in diagnosis.
  • Disbelief - You may have trouble accepting that you have cancer, especially if you don’t feel sick. It may take time to accept the diagnosis.
  • Sadness - It is natural for a person with cancer to feel sad. If you have continual feelings of sadness, and feel sleepy and unmotivated – talk to your doctor – you may be clinically depressed.
  • Guilt - It is common to look for a cause of cancer. While some people blame themselves, no-one deserves to get cancer.
  • Loneliness - It’s natural to feel that nobody understands what you’re going through. You might feel lonely and isolated if your family and friends have trouble dealing with cancer, or if you are too sick to work or socialise with others and enjoy your usual activities.
  • Loss of control - Being told you have cancer can be overwhelming and make you feel as though you are losing control of your life.
  • Distress - Many people, including carers and family members, experience high levels of emotional suffering as a direct result of a cancer diagnosis.

If you are having trouble dealing with any of your emotions, consider talking to family and friends, seeking professional help through a counsellor, psychologist or psychiatrist, or joining a support group.

Worry

After diagnosis the next step is likely to be treatment – which could be one event, such as surgery, or a series of events such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Each of these will have its own demands, including medical appointments, tests, physical and emotional side effects, and changed routines.

While it can be useful to plan for what lies ahead, worrying about the future can make you feel even more distressed. Instead, try to focus on the most immediate concern, directing your effort where it is needed right now. After you have dealt with what is happening now, you can then face the next step.

Try to take advantage of the breaks between treatments, tests or appointments, or when you are less troubled by the effects of your treatment. These breaks give you a chance to recharge, both physically and emotionally.

Finding hope

Having cancer doesn’t mean you have to lose hope. The outlook for many cancers is improving constantly. Some cancers can be treated successfully, while others can be controlled. If the cancer can’t be controlled, symptoms can be relieved to make life more comfortable. It is still possible to live well.

Often the first thing people ask when they are told they have cancer is, ‘Am I going to die?’. Talk to your doctor about what the diagnosis means for you and what the future may hold. Knowing more about your illness may help ease this fear.

Feeling down or depressed

Many people feel low or depressed after a cancer diagnosis, during treatment or when they are recovering. Don’t be surprised if you feel unhappy at times.

But there is a difference between feeling unhappy and being depressed. You may be depressed if you are in a low mood for most of the time, or have lost interest and pleasure in most things for more than two weeks.

Depression often won’t go away by itself, but tackling it early may mean that you can deal with problems quickly and avoid symptoms becoming worse.

There are also many effective treatments for depression, including both medication and non-medication options.

This information was last reviewed in April 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Lisbeth Lane, Senior Clinical Psychologist, University of Wollongong, Wollongong Hospital, NSW; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecological Oncology, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Dr Megan Best, Palliative Care Physician, Greenwich Hospital, NSW; Deborah Ball, Coordinator of Direct Support Services, Cancer Council SA; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Jill Adams, RN, Helpline, Cancer Council WA; and Ksenia Savin, Cancer Connect Volunteer and Consumer, QLD.

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