Dealing with the diagnosis

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. There are many reasons for this reaction. Cancer is a serious disease and, at first, most people feel overwhelmed and confused about treatment options and possible side effects. You may wonder if you will be the same person as before, if you will be able to do the things you usually enjoy, if your work life will be impacted, and if your relationships will change.

These thoughts and feelings are a natural reaction to a serious health situation. However, you can explore ways to manage these feelings before they overwhelm you.

Common reactions

For many people, the first few weeks after they are diagnosed with cancer are very stressful. There is no right way to feel – experiencing a range of emotions is normal and everyone will cope differently.

These 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 rollercoaster.

There are many ways to cope with how you’re feeling. Everyone is different, and you need to deal with the diagnosis in your own way. Talking to family and friends is often helpful, and some people find joining a support group makes them feel reassured and less alone.

Feelings you may experience
Shock and disbelief

It may take time to accept that you have cancer, especially if you don’t feel sick. However, some people may never accept the diagnosis.


It’s frightening to hear you have cancer. Most people cope better when they learn more about the diagnosis and treatment options.


The cancer diagnosis may cause you, your carers and family members to experience high levels of emotional distress.


Feeling sad after a cancer diagnosis is common. If you feel continually sad or down for two or more weeks and are not enjoying or interested in your usual activities, or are unmotivated, talk to your doctor – you may be experiencing depression.


It’s natural to worry about the prognosis and treatment, and the impact the diagnosis will have on your family, work and other responsibilities, but looking too far ahead may be unhelpful.


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. Perhaps you are angry that you did everything right, and you still got cancer.

Guilt and blame

It is common to ask ‘why me?’ and to look for a cause of cancer. While you may blame yourself, no-one deserves to get cancer.


You might feel lonely and isolated if your family and friends have trouble understanding or dealing with your diagnosis, 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.

Finding hope

In Australia, the rates of cancer survival have increased significantly over time, but it can be hard to feel hopeful when you have just been diagnosed with cancer. Worrying about the future is natural. Treatments are improving constantly, and if the cancer can’t be controlled, symptoms can be relieved to make life more comfortable.

Often the first thing people ask when 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.

If you’ve been told your cancer is advanced, you may find it harder to feel hopeful. In some cases, advanced cancer can be controlled for many years, allowing you to do the things you enjoy for as long as possible. For more information see Living with Advanced Cancer or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

Expert content reviewers:

Reviewers:Prof Jane Turner, Psychiatrist, Faculty of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, The University of Queensland, QLD; Andreea Ardeleanu, Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Phillip Community Health Centre, ACT; Dr Lisa Beatty, Research Fellow, School of Psychology, Flinders University, SA; Joshua Chalmers, Consumer; Valmai Goodwin, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland, QLD; Karen Hall, Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services Division, Flinders Medical Centre, and Nurse Health Counsellor, Cancer Council SA, SA; and Judith McGrath, Consumer.

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