At any stage after a cancer diagnosis, you may experience times of distress and feel a range of strong emotions, such as disbelief, fear, sadness, anxiety and anger.
These reactions can be seen as a type of grief − cancer often involves a series of losses, such as the loss of good health, temporary or permanent changes to your appearance, not being able to work or do your normal activities, changed financial plans, a loss of independence, changed relationships, and a shift in how you see yourself. It usually takes time to adjust to these changes.
When your mental health needs are met, you are in the best position to manage the demands of treatment. Let your treatment team know if you have a history of anxiety or depression, as this could make you more vulnerable now. It is important to manage emotional distress and seek professional support if it is ongoing.
Many people say that their experience after a cancer diagnosis also includes feelings of hope and connection. For some, it can be a time of reflection and lead to new goals and priorities.
Learn more about these common emotions:
The first reaction to a diagnosis is often shock – you may feel numb, as if you aren’t feeling any emotion. It may take time to accept that you have cancer, especially if you don’t feel sick. This numbness can protect you as you gradually come to terms with the diagnosis.
However, some people may never fully accept the diagnosis. Over time, denial can make it difficult to accept the demands of treatment, so always discuss your views with your cancer specialist.
Cancer treatments and outcomes have dramatically improved in recent years, but it can still be very frightening to hear the word “cancer”. It’s natural to worry about the treatment, side effects, test results and the long-term outcome, as well as the impact that the diagnosis will have on your family, work and other responsibilities.
Most people cope better when they learn more about the diagnosis and treatment options and when they develop a plan for how they will manage the practical issues. The period before each new treatment begins may be particularly stressful, but many people find that they feel calmer once treatment is underway.
In times of stress, your body releases adrenaline, your heart beats faster, your blood pressure goes up, your breathing is shallow and rapid, your hands get sweaty, and your mouth gets dry. These natural reactions are part of the “fight or flight” response to danger, allowing people to react quickly to a sudden threat. For most people, these feelings settle, but for others they can cause panic attacks or they may be ongoing. This can lead to anxiety that affects your thoughts and may make you irritable and short-tempered. Learn about ways to reduce stress and anxiety.
For some people, severe anxiety or fear can lead to panic attacks. These might happen in a particular situation, such as having a test in an enclosed space or before a medical procedure, but sometimes there is no clear single trigger.
A panic attack can happen suddenly and be very alarming. It can include symptoms such as:
In a panic attack, these sensations may be intense, but will normally peak and pass within a few minutes. However, they can also be symptoms of heart attack and other serious health conditions, so call 000 if they occur unexpectedly, do not pass quickly, or if you are unsure. If you experience panic attacks, it is important to talk to your doctor about ways to manage them.
It is common to ask “why me?” You may feel angry with your family or friends, health professionals, the world, or even yourself if you think you may have contributed to the cancer or a delay in diagnosis. Perhaps you’re angry that you did everything right and still got cancer.
Cancer often does not cause any symptoms in the early stages, or it may cause symptoms that are more likely to be explained by other conditions. This means it can take some time to get a diagnosis.
It is natural to try to work out why the cancer started. However, even though we know the risk factors for some cancers, not everyone with risk factors will get cancer, so there is an element of chance. If you are blaming yourself, try to remember that no-one deserves cancer.
People diagnosed with cancer often say that their greatest concern is for the people they love, that they feel guilty about putting them through such a stressful experience. It may be helpful to share your feelings with someone neutral, such as a counsellor.
Feeling sad after a cancer diagnosis is common. It is a natural response to loss and disappointment. You may be sad about the way cancer has changed your day-to-day life, your body, or your plans for the future.
If you have continued feelings of sadness, have trouble getting up in the morning, or have lost motivation to do things that previously gave you pleasure, you may be experiencing depression. Support is available.
Cancer can be isolating, even with many people to support you. You might feel lonely if your family and friends have trouble dealing with your diagnosis, or if you are too sick to work or socialise with others and enjoy your usual activities. This might be the time to connect with other people going through a similar experience.
Being told you have cancer can be overwhelming, and you may feel that your emotions are out of control. It may also seem that you are losing control of your life − some people say they feel helpless or powerless. This can be very difficult, especially if you are used to being independent or being the one who takes care of everyone else.
Dr Anna Hughes, Liaison Psychiatrist and Psycho-oncologist, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anita Bamert, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria, VIC; Sally Carveth, Assistant Coordinator, Cancer Support Leader Program, Cancer Council NSW; Matt Featherstone, Consumer; Dr Charlotte Tottman, Clinical Psychologist, Allied Consultant Psychologists and Flinders University, SA; Shirley Witko, Senior Social Worker, Comprehensive Cancer Centre, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
The information on this page is also available for download.