Coping with advanced cancer

Having advanced cancer often means living with uncertainty. This can be challenging, and you may cycle through various emotions.

After the initial shock of the diagnosis, some people say they avoid thinking about what the future may hold by keeping busy or distracting themselves from their thoughts. Some people say distraction works during the day, but find it more difficult to silence worrying thoughts during the middle of the night.

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Grief, loss and change

Grief is the natural response to any loss or major change. An advanced cancer diagnosis can lead to physical, emotional, social, spiritual and financial changes.

You may grieve for the loss of your hopes and plans for the future, how living with the illness could affect your life or independence, or the uncertainty it creates for what lies ahead.

Different people grieve in different ways. It can affect you physically and emotionally. Grief 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 during treatment.

Adjusting to loss

  • Some people find a ‘new normal’, a way to live life meaningfully while also experiencing grief. There could be more than one ‘new normal’, depending on how the disease progresses.
  • Talk to a social worker or counsellor. They 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.

Feeling down

Everyone reacts and adjusts to the diagnosis of advanced cancer in their own way and in their own time.

Feeling low or depressed following a cancer diagnosis is common. You may have continued feelings of sadness, or hopelessness, or you may have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure. Getting help with depression can allow you to deal with other problems more easily and quickly, and improve the quality of your life.

Ways to manage depression

  • Talk to your GP, as counselling or medicine – even for a short time – may help. If necessary, they can prepare a GP Mental Health Treatment Plan and you can access the Medicare-funded Better Access initiative, which provides counselling with psychologists or social workers.
  • Your local Cancer Council may also run a counselling program, or you may like to speak to somebody who has the same type of cancer as you through a peer support program.
  • Visit beyondblue for more information on coping with depression and anxiety.

Being realistic

Some people believe that the attitude of the person with cancer can influence the outcome of the disease. While it can help to be positive, this doesn’t mean you are denying the reality that cancer is often frightening and challenging. Trying to put on a brave face all the time and avoiding anything painful is hard work and can drain your energy.

Pressure to be optimistic all the time can 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 you trust about your fears and concerns so that you can better cope with them.
  • Explain how you’re feeling to those around you – this may help you get the support you need.
  • Talk to a counsellor, social worker or psychologist – this may allow you to discuss your worries more openly.

Looking for meaning

Everyone has their own beliefs about the meaning of life, and it’s quite common for people diagnosed with advanced cancer to re-examine this meaning. For some people, cancer may lead them to prioritise what they think is most important in their life.

The prospect of a shortened life span does not always stop people from trying to achieve long-held goals, but it may mean they adjust some of their goals. While the diagnosis may cause some to live life at a slower pace, others may feel an urgency to make the most of each day.

Ways to explore the meaning of life

  • Look for meaning in your life with someone close to you, or to talk to a spiritual or religious adviser, or to a professional counsellor or psychologist.
  • Write in a journal, meditate or pray to explore how you’re feeling.

Celebrating your life

Having advanced cancer is often an opportunity for people to reflect on their life and all they have done, and to think about their legacy.

Ways to share elements of your life

  • Write letters or stories of your life for family and friends
  • Make a recording of 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
  • Create artwork
  • Make a memory box – include postcards, photos or a list of happy memories

This information was last reviewed in December 2016
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