- Cancer Information
- Advanced cancer
- Living with advanced cancer
- The emotional impact
- Coping with advanced cancer
Coping with advanced cancer
A diagnosis of advanced cancer often means finding new or different ways to cope with your emotions.
Learn more about:
- Managing uncertainty
- Loss and grief
- Being realistic
- Looking for meaning
- Celebrating your life
- Finding hope
Having advanced cancer often means living with uncertainty about what lies ahead. This can be challenging. Some people say they avoid thinking about what the future may hold by keeping busy or distracting themselves from their thoughts. While distraction can work in the short term, you may need to find your own way to manage difficult thoughts and emotions. Everyone will find their own way at their own pace. There is no right or wrong way.
A diagnosis of advanced cancer often involves a series of losses, such as the loss of good health, changing relationships, the loss of your hopes and future plans, or a loss of independence. You may need time to grieve for these losses.
Different people grieve in different ways. It is not as simple as going through stages. It is a process, and the intensity can vary. Some people describe different “waves” of grief, from mild to overwhelming. You may experience grief gradually and at different times – at diagnosis, if you start to feel unwell, or if treatment stops working.
A social worker or counsellor can help you and your family find strategies to manage the grief and loss you may experience. Your palliative care team can also provide grief support or refer you to someone who can help.
A common belief is that people with cancer need to stay positive. While you don’t have to deny the reality that cancer is often frightening and serious, pressure to be optimistic all the time can drain your energy. It can also make it difficult to discuss any fears or sad feelings, which can make problems seem worse.
Try to be realistic about what is happening and talk to someone about how you’re feeling. This may help you cope better and get the support you need.
You might find that talking to a counsellor or psychologist allows you to discuss your worries more openly. The Better Access initiative allows GPs to refer people to a psychologist for up to 10 free or subsidised sessions. Ask your GP for a referral to a psychologist or find your own at Find a Psychologist. Carers can also call the National Carer Counselling Program on 1800 242 636. This offers short-term counselling and is run by your local Carers Association.
Everyone has their own beliefs about the meaning of life. For some people, this might be found in spirituality or family; for others, it’s found in nature or art. It’s quite common for people diagnosed with advanced cancer to re-examine what life means for them.
A diagnosis of advanced cancer does not always stop people from trying to achieve long-held goals, but they may start to focus on what is most important to them. While the diagnosis may cause some people to live life at a slower pace, others may feel an urgency to make the most of each day.
You may want to discuss meaning in your life with someone close to you, a spiritual care practitioner, or a professional counsellor or psychologist. If you’d prefer not to talk to someone else, you could write in a journal, meditate or pray.
Having advanced cancer is often a chance for people to reflect on their life and all they have done, and to think about their legacy. You could talk with family and friends about the special times you have shared together.
You might like to share some of your belongings with family and friends as a permanent reminder. You could also write letters or stories of your life, record special memories, review or arrange photo albums, document your family’s history or family tree, make a playlist of favourite songs, gather treasured recipes into a cookbook, or create artwork or music.
When you’ve been told you have advanced cancer, you may find it hard to feel hopeful.
What you hope for may change with time. You may look forward to good days with understanding company or the love of family and friends. You may find yourself hoping you will maintain your sense of independence or stay symptom-free. Some people try activities they’ve never tried before and find hope in this new aspect of their lives. Others find hope in small projects, such as completing a scrapbook of their life or planning a trip with their family.
If I think of myself as a person who is dying of cancer, then what lies ahead is a hopeless end. If I think of myself as a person who is living with cancer, then my daily life is an endless hope.
While the cancer and its treatment can limit your activities, some people discover new strengths in themselves, and this gives them hope.
For some people, faith or spiritual beliefs can help them get through tough times. People who find hope in these beliefs describe feelings of optimism that are hard to explain to others. Cancer can also test people’s beliefs. Either way, you may find it helpful to talk to a spiritual care practitioner, counsellor or psychologist for support.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Prof Nicholas Glasgow, Head, Calvary Palliative and End of Life Care Research Institute, ACT; Kathryn Bennett, Nurse Practitioner, Eastern Palliative Care Association Inc., VIC; Dr Maria Ftanou, Head, Clinical Psychology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, and Research Fellow, Melbourne School of Population and Global Health, The University of Melbourne, VIC; Erin Ireland, Legal Counsel, Cancer Council NSW; Nikki Johnston, Palliative Care Nurse Practitioner, Clare Holland House, Calvary Public Hospital Bruce, ACT; Judy Margolis, Consumer; Linda Nolte, Program Director, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kate Reed- Cox, Nurse Practitioner, National Clinical Advisor, Palliative Care Australia; Helena Rodi, Project Manager, Advance Care Planning Australia; Kaitlyn Thorne, Coordinator Cancer Support, 13 11 20, Cancer Council Queensland.
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