Having cancer can cause a range of emotions and you might find your usual ways of coping are no longer enough. It is important to remember that there is no right or wrong way to feel when you are faced with cancer, just as there is no one right way to cope.
It is not uncommon to feel shocked or numb and find it difficult to take things in. You may feel angry, sad, fearful or anxious. Some people may find it hard to believe this is happening to them, while others may blame themselves, or something or someone else. Others may withdraw from their loved ones.
Regardless of the reaction, it can be hard to think clearly and logically. Feeling that you are not coping may make these emotions feel worse, but there are things you can do to help you cope.
What you can do
Whether you have cancer yourself, or are supporting someone with cancer, it is important to take good care of yourself. Coping with cancer can be challenging and different things work for different people.
Experiment to find what works best for you. Making too many changes at once may not be effective for some people. Instead, consider trying only one or two new things at a time.
Learn about cancer
We tend to fear the things we don’t understand. Learning about your cancer, its treatment and possible side effects may help lessen your anxiety. Many people find that the more they know about cancer, the more in control and confident they feel.
If you know the facts, you are better able to cope with the negative stories, myths or misunderstandings about cancer that other people might tell you. However, what has happened to others will not necessarily happen to you. Your treating team is best placed to help explain what you can expect.
You may have lots of questions for your doctors – write them down before the visit to help you remember them. If you don’t understand what they say, ask them to explain it in a different way. It can also help to take someone with you for support.
Talk it over
Talking about your concerns and fears may help. You might be able to see your problem more clearly and find new ways of coping when you share your feelings, rather than bottling them up.
Talk to someone you feel comfortable with. It might be someone close to you – a family member or friend. It may be your doctor or nurse, social worker or spiritual adviser. You might prefer professional counselling from a psychologist. Your doctor will be able to provide you with a referral.
Each person will have different needs for support. Some may want information on practical support or treatment options and coping with side effects. Other people find it helpful being with others who have been through similar experiences.
There are many ways to connect with others for mutual support. These include:
People looking after someone with cancer may like to join a carers’ support group.
Accept help and put yourself first
Accept offers of help. Most people really want to help, but often don’t know how to. Create a list of jobs, which could include transport to appointments, cooking meals, food shopping, caring for pets, washing and cleaning.
Think of yourself and your own needs. Don’t try to do everything, instead concentrate on doing the things that really matter. Take time out when you need it, and rest when you are tired. This is as important for carers as it is for people with cancer.
Allow yourself to say no to things you can’t cope with, including visitors. If you have trouble saying no, ask someone to do it for you.
Try different ways of approaching problems
Sometimes problems can crowd your mind and make it difficult to see solutions. Try taking some time to sit down quietly. Start by relaxing, maybe try a few deep breaths. Then try to sort quietly through the things that are worrying you. You might like to do this alone, or with someone else.
You could start by listing your different concerns, both large and small. Then choose one or two that you want to work on – things that can be changed or helped. For instance, you might be worried about managing your family or concerned about the side effects of treatment. Then list things you can do, writing down every solution you can think of, even the ones that seem too difficult or unrealistic.
For instance, your list might include:
- asking your doctor to talk to you about issues you are most concerned about
- speaking to a cancer nurse by calling 13 11 20
- setting aside some time just to be with your partner or your children every day
- organising a cleaner, or asking your local council how they can help
- organising a roster for the family and friends to help at home
- having time away – our Holiday Break program offers short breaks to those affected by cancer.
Select one or more solutions that seem possible and give them a try.
Exercise, sleep and eat well
Try to eat a balanced diet
Sometimes you might not feel like eating or preparing food, but eating a balanced diet, even if you don’t eat a lot, will help you to feel as well as possible. The dietitian at your treatment centre can provide advice. If friends and family offer to help, suggest meal preparation and don’t forget to let them know which foods you are and aren’t enjoying.
Exercise when you can
Exercise has proven to be beneficial for those affected by cancer. It can help you to release tension and feel more relaxed. If you are able to, return to exercise you have enjoyed in the past, or try gentle exercise such as walking, swimming or yoga. Check with your doctor before starting exercise.
Try to get enough sleep
Cancer can cause anxiety which could interrupt your normal sleep patterns. Relaxation techniques may help you sleep. If you are lying awake worrying about something you haven’t done, get up and do it, or read and then try sleeping again. If you have a sleep problem that is worrying you, seek advice from your doctor.
Do things you enjoy
Continuing with your hobbies can help you stay connected with people and activities you enjoy. Try to get out of the house regularly, even if only for short outings. Listen to music or watch a movie, take a long relaxing bath or do something creative – anything you find relaxing or satisfying.
Seek comfort through spirituality
Often when people are diagnosed with cancer, the spiritual aspect of their lives becomes more important. Spiritual support can come in many forms. People often find comfort in meditation, quiet contemplation or prayer.
Others find feelings of unity and support from being part of a group or congregation. Receiving pastoral care from a religious or spiritual adviser, or a hospital chaplain can often help people, even if they are not part of an organised religion.
Learning to relax your body and your mind may help you feel better and more in control. You may feel calmer and more capable of thinking practically about your challenges.
Learn to recognise when your body is tense. Sit quietly for a moment and listen to what your body tells you. Is your breathing fast and shallow, or is it deeper and more relaxed? Are your hands clenched? Can you sit still easily? If you recognise when you are tense, you may be able to do something about it. Give yourself a regular time to relax – maybe 10 to 15 minutes twice a day, or more if you wish.
Learning to relax may be challenging when dealing with the emotions of a cancer diagnosis and treatment. Health professionals at your hospital, such as a physiotherapist, occupational therapist or social worker may be able to provide you with information about relaxation classes at your hospital or in your community.
Relaxation methods you could try include:
- Meditation – Learning to quieten your mind through mediation may help you think more clearly and feel calmer. There are many different types of meditation and it requires regular practice.
- Massage – Massage will often relieve tension and make you feel more comfortable.
- Hypnotherapy – Hypnotherapy can deeply relax your body and mind, helping you to manage anxiety and stress. It may also help to control pain and treatment side effects. It is important to go to a hypnotherapist who is properly qualified.
- T’ai chi – T’ai chi is the ancient Chinese art of moving meditation. Movements create stability in the body, fosters a sense of physical control and brings stillness and balance to the mind.
- Yoga – Yoga involves performing poses with the body, slowing and deepening the breath, and focusing the mind. There are many styles of yoga with varying intensity – some may not be suitable during certain stages of cancer.
- A simple relaxation – Find a warm, quiet place. Sit in a comfortable chair, hands resting loosely, or lie on your back, arms resting by your side. Close your eyes and let yourself slow down, breathing in gradually and deeply. Hold the air for a few seconds and then let it go, breathe out. Feel your body go loose and limp. Let the tension slip away as the air flows out. Repeat.
- Other complementary therapies.
Resources to help you relax
Listen to our Finding Calm During Cancer podcast, and join psychologist Dr Lisbeth Lane as she guides you through a series of meditation and relaxation practices.
There are also a range of YouTube videos and apps dedicated to mindfulness, and some are free. These resources can vary considerably in style, so you might need to try several to find one that suits you.
Learning to Relax
Download our Learning to Relax fact sheet to learn moreDownload now
Expert content reviewers:
Annie Angle, cancer nurse, Dip. Oncology Nursing, Royal Marsden, London.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Learning to Relax - Information for people affected by cancer (2016 edition). This webpage was last updated in August 2021.