Most of us have various ways of coping with difficult situations, which we have learned over time. These could include:
- seeking more information
- finding solutions
- having a laugh to feel better
- trying to be strong and 'soldiering on'
- distracting ourselves from unhelpful thoughts and feelings
- shifting our focus to a pleasurable activity
- talking things through to try to make sense of what is happening.
How you cope depends on many factors, such as the particular situation you are facing, as well as your past experiences, personality, upbringing and role models. There is no best or right way of coping. It's important to think about what has worked for you in the past, but after a cancer diagnosis, you may find that you need a little more help. Exploring different coping strategies can help you feel more in control.
Some people use alcohol and drugs to cope with stressful situations. These may appear to provide short-term relief, but they can cause long-term harm and could affect how well the cancer treatment works. If you think you might be in denial or starting to rely on alcohol or drugs to cope, it's important to get professional support. With the right help, it's possible to learn new ways of coping.
Your coping toolbox
A coping toolbox is a set of strategies you can use to help you cope with a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Each person’s toolbox will look different, but it’s useful to consider a range of strategies.
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Strategies to help cope
- Find out what to expect – getting information about cancer and how it's treated can help you make decisions, plan ahead and feel more secure.
- Be active – research has shown that regular physical activity can help with feelings of anger, anxiety and depression, boost your energy levels and improve sleep. Even a short daily walk can be effective.
- Seek support – share your concerns with a family member or friend, or with your GP, nurse, social worker or psychologist. You could also visit our Online Community or join a support group. Accepting help with housework and other chores may also make it easier to cope.
- Eat and drink well – eating healthy food and drinking plenty of water will help your body cope with physical and emotional stress.
- Take a break – make time each day just for relaxation and enjoyment. Think about things that help you to feel good, such as reading, listening to music, or having a massage. Keeping in touch with the world through work, hobbies, or time with family and friends may help you connect with your life outside of cancer and provide a break from your worries.
- Sort out issues – a cancer diagnosis can cause or add to financial, work, accommodation and relationship difficulties or stresses. There is support available.
- Clear your mind – complementary therapies, such as yoga, may increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve mood.
- Draw on spirituality – some people find meaning and comfort in their faith. Others may see spirituality more generally. A cancer diagnosis can challenge deeply held beliefs. It could help to talk with a spiritual care practitioner or religious leader.
When you are first diagnosed, there is a lot of information to take in – and well-meaning family and friends may give you even more. This information overload can leave you overwhelmed and confused about what to do.
Tips for gathering information
- Look for reliable information – make sure your information comes from recognised cancer experts and is based on strong evidence.
- Ask questions – if you are unsure or confused about anything, it can help to talk to your treatment team. Write down your questions beforehand and put them in order of how important they are right now.
- Involve other people – ask people you trust to help gather and make sense of new information. You could also ask them to come to your appointments with you, and take notes or join in the discussion.
- Find out about clinical trials – doctors run clinical trials to test new or modified treatments to see if they are better than current methods. Over the years, trials have led to better outcomes for people with cancer.
- Get organised – start a filing system for all your test results, information and records. You can also use My Health Record.
- Keep a diary – you can use a paper diary or smartphone app to keep track of appointments and side effects. This will also be a useful record in the future, especially if you are seeing different health professionals.
- Update your affairs – many people with cancer review their insurance and superannuation policies and update their will and other legal documents. This doesn’t mean you have given up hope – everyone needs to do these things at some point and you might feel relieved once they are done. Our Legal and Financial Referral Services can connect you with qualified professionals.
- Find support – there are many ways to connect with other people in a similar situation.
Asking your health professionals questions can help you find the right support. You may want to include some of these questions in your own list:
Questions for your doctors
- Where can I get help for how I am feeling?
- How do I know if what I am feeling is a typical reaction? When should I think about getting some professional support?
- What are common emotional challenges with this type of cancer?
- Will a multidisciplinary team (MDT) be involved in my care? Does the MDT include a psychologist and/or social worker?
- How can I see a social worker at my treatment hospital?
- How can I find a professional counsellor or psychologist?
- Should I see a psychiatrist?
- Could I join any clinical trials or research studies about managing the emotional impact of cancer?
- How can I connect with other people affected by cancer?
- Which complementary therapies might help me?
- Who can I talk to about my finances, legal matters and other practical concerns?
- Where can I get more information about the cancer, tests and treatment?
- Who can support my family or carers?
- After treatment, how do I manage fear of the cancer coming back?
- Who can I talk to if I feel worried or depressed after treatment?
Questions for your psychologist, counsellor or other mental health professional
- What are your qualifications and training?
- How much experience do you have supporting people affected by cancer?
- What type of therapy do you recommend for me?
- How long will the therapy last?
- What will the sessions cost? Can the cost be reduced if I can’t afford it?
- Who can I call after hours if I need immediate emotional support?
- Should I consider medicines to support my emotional health?
- Are there any apps, podcasts or online programs that might be helpful?
After a cancer diagnosis, you will probably need to make a number of decisions. These could include which treatments to have, how to involve or care for your family and friends, whether or when to return to work, and what to do about finances.
Tips for making decisions
- Know your options – understanding the disease, available treatments, possible side effects and any extra costs can help you weigh up the options and make well-informed decisions.
- Take your time – check with your specialist how soon treatment should begin. If it is safe to wait a short while, use that time to think about your decisions.
- Get expert advice – ask your health professionals to clearly explain your treatment options, and the benefits and side effects of each. For non-medical concerns, you can ask to speak to the social worker at the hospital or treatment centre. You can also ask them about issues such as financial assistance, how to get extra help at home, and support for relationship or emotional difficulties.
- Write it down – organising your thoughts on paper can often be easier than trying to work everything out in your head. Start by identifying the purpose of the treatment, then list the pros and cons of each treatment option. You could rank the importance of each point, considering the short-term and long-term effects on you and others.
- Talk it over – discuss the options with those close to you. You may feel worried about how your decisions will affect them, so hearing their opinions could put your mind at rest. Sometimes you might prefer to talk to someone neutral, such as a member of your treatment team.
- Consider a second opinion – you may want to get a second opinion to confirm or clarify your specialist’s recommendations or just to check you have explored all the options. Specialists are used to people doing this. You can get a second opinion even if you have started treatment or still want to be treated by your first specialist. You might decide you prefer the second specialist.
- Expect to have doubts – feeling unsure does not mean you have taken the wrong path. Reassure yourself that you made the best decisions you could with the information you had at the time. Remember that decisions are not always final and it may be possible to change your mind even after you have started down a particular treatment path.
- Remember it’s your decision – adults have the right to accept or refuse any treatment that they are offered. You may want to discuss your decision with your treatment team, GP, family and friends.
- Use a decision aid – decision aids are online or printed resources that help you choose between treatment options. You answer questions that help you focus on what matters most to you. There are decision aids for a range of cancer-related issues. Ask your treatment team if there is a decision aid for your situation.
Managing your thoughts
People affected by cancer may find themselves going over and over the same distressing thoughts about the past, present or future. Ignoring such thoughts or trying to distract yourself may work at first, but they often return once you are no longer distracted.
Tips for managing your thoughts
These strategies may be a helpful starting point if you are finding it hard to manage your thoughts. To learn more, you can explore resources such as apps and podcasts or seek support from a professional.
- Identify where the thoughts come from – ask yourself if your thoughts are the result of an underlying belief, or perhaps you tend to give personal meaning to everything that is happening, even to events that are beyond your control.
- Consider your own advice – think of someone you love and imagine what you would say to them if they felt the same way.
- Check your thoughts – ask yourself if you are jumping to conclusions or exaggerating the negatives. If so, is there something you can do to change the situation or improve it?
- Write down your thoughts – this helps slow down your thinking and improves your ability to focus. It may also make it easier to work out if a thought is based on facts and if it is realistic or helpful. This can create an opportunity for you to challenge unhelpful ways of thinking.
- Recognise the little positives – some days it might be hard to find something positive. This is understandable, but if you feel like that every day, check whether you are ignoring any little achievements or happy events. Some people make a habit of writing down three good things that have happened to them each day.
- Practise letting your thoughts come and go – it's important to remember that thoughts are fleeting. We tend to notice some, but there are many we don’t notice. Try to let your thoughts come and go without getting caught up in them.
- Be kind to yourself – use encouraging thoughts to talk yourself through difficulties, rather than criticising yourself. This does not come naturally to most people, but counsellors and psychologists can teach you techniques to help you be kinder to yourself.
- Seek professional help – social workers, psychologists and other health professionals are trained to help people manage how they’re feeling. Check what support is available at your treatment centre or ask your GP for a referral.
- Use online programs – it can be helpful to track how you’re feeling, and some people use free online self-help programs or smartphone apps to do this. You could try Mood Gym, Mindspot, or This Way Up.
Sleep can help your body cope with the physical and emotional demands of cancer treatment. You may find your sleep is affected by worry, pain, nausea, menopause symptoms (e.g. hot flushes) and some medicines (e.g. steroids).
If you are less physically active during treatment, your body may not be as tired and you could find it harder to sleep. Feeling sad or depressed can also make it difficult to sleep well at night.
Tips to improve sleep
- Try to go to bed at the same time every night and get up at the same time every day.
- Do some physical activity each day, but avoid vigorous exercise just before bed.
- Put screens away an hour before bedtime and do something relaxing – have a bath, read, or listen to music.
- Avoid coffee, tea, chocolate, cola and energy drinks after early afternoon.
- Avoid alcohol before bed. It may seem to help you relax and fall asleep, but it can keep you from getting quality sleep and feeling rested when you wake.
- Eat medium-sized meals in the evening. Your sleep can be disrupted if you go to bed hungry, but also if you have indigestion after eating a big meal.
- Limit naps to 10–30 minutes and take them before 3pm.
- Use relaxation practices before bed.
- Keep your bedroom as dark, cool and quiet as possible.
- If you can’t sleep, get up and sit on the couch until you feel sleepy. Keep lights low and try doing something boring that you can easily put down when you are ready to sleep again.
- Listen to the Sleep and Cancer episode of The Thing About Cancer podcast.
Using complementary therapies
Complementary therapies are widely used alongside conventional cancer treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiation therapy. They may offer physical, emotional and spiritual support, help reduce side effects from medical treatment, and improve quality of life. For example:
- Relaxation and meditation – can help reduce stress, anxiety and fatigue, and improve quality of life.
- Counselling – through discussions with a counsellor, social worker or psychologist, you can identify problems and explore ways of managing unhelpful thoughts and feelings.
- Art therapy – uses visual art to express feelings. You do not need artistic talent to join in or benefit. An art therapist helps you explore the images you have created to encourage understanding of your emotions and concerns.
Let your doctor know about any other therapies you are using or thinking about trying. Some may not be helpful and could cause problems if used with some medical treatments.
Emotions and Cancer
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Expert content reviewers:
A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology and Allied Health Lead, Cancer, Central Adelaide Local Health Network and The University of Adelaide, SA; Hannah Chen, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Hazel Everett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, TAS; Dr Jemma Gilchrist, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Mind My Health and Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead, NSW; Sandra Hodge, Consumer; Dr Michael Murphy, Psychiatrist and Clinician Researcher, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Alesha Thai, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Alan White, Consumer.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Emotions and cancer - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2021 edition). This webpage was lasted updated in March 2022.