Most people will experience strong emotions after a cancer diagnosis, not only when they first hear that it's cancer, but also at various times during and after treatment.
Cancer is a serious disease, the treatment may take a long time and can be demanding, and there are many periods of waiting and uncertainty. There is no right way to feel – experiencing a range of emotions is normal. The intense feelings may be constant, or they may come and go. You may find that some pass with time, while others last longer. At times, it may feel like you're on an emotional roller-coaster.
Everyone is different, and you need to deal with the diagnosis in your own way. As you navigate this challenging time, it may be reassuring to know that your reactions are natural, there are different ways to manage the emotional impact, and support is available.
Many people find that they cope better than expected with some aspects of the cancer experience, but are surprised by how difficult other aspects turn out to be.
When you are diagnosed with cancer, it is often difficult to take in the news immediately – you might hear the words, but not be able to absorb them or believe them. Most people feel overwhelmed at first.
The weeks after diagnosis can be very stressful. You may feel like everything is happening too fast - or too slowly. People often feel confused and anxious about treatments and side effects. You may wonder if you will be the same person as before and how your life will change.
Cancer treatments can be physically demanding and disrupt all your usual routines. You may also need to deal with practical issues such as travelling to treatment, paying for tests and treatment, getting time off work, and family responsibilities.
Treatment side effects
The physical and emotional impacts of cancer are linked. Side effects of treatment can make it harder to cope emotionally, while emotional distress may make the physical side effects worse. The good news is many side effects can now be well managed if you tell your treatment team.
Many people are puzzled to find that their mood doesn't improve as soon as treatment finishes. This can be a time of adjustment as you reassess priorities and come to terms with any long-term impacts of treatment. It is common to feel concerned about the cancer coming back, especially when you have follow-up tests.
It can be devastating to be told that the cancer is advanced at first diagnosis, or that it has returned after the initial treatment. If this is the case for you, you and your carers may find it helpful to see a professional counsellor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20. You could also read Living with Advanced Cancer.
Expert content reviewers:
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.