The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis
Delores, cancer survivor: “There’s a fear that goes through you when you are told you have cancer. It’s so hard in the beginning to think about anything but your diagnosis. It’s the first thing you think about every morning. I want people diagnosed with cancer to know it does get better. Talking about your cancer helps you deal with all of the new emotions you are feeling. Remember, it’s normal to get upset.”
When you are told you have cancer, the diagnosis affects not only you, but also your family and friends. You may feel scared, uncertain, or angry about the unwanted changes cancer will bring to your life and theirs. You may feel numb or confused. You may have trouble listening to, understanding, or remembering what people tell you during this time. This is especially true when your doctor first tells you that you have cancer. It’s not uncommon for people to shut down mentally once they hear the word “cancer.”
There’s nothing fair about cancer and no one deserves to have it. A cancer diagnosis is hard to take and having cancer is not easy. When you find out you have cancer, your personal beliefs and experiences help you figure out what it means to you and how you will handle it. As you face your own mortality and cope with the many demands of cancer, you may look more closely at your religious beliefs, your personal and family values, and what’s most important in your life. Accepting the diagnosis and figuring out what cancer will mean in your life is challenging.
After you are diagnosed with cancer, you may feel shock, disbelief, fear, anxiety, guilt, sadness, grief, depression, anger, and more. Each person may have some or all of these feelings, and each will handle them in a different way.
Your first emotion may be shock—no one is ever ready to hear that they have cancer. It’s normal for people with cancer to wonder why it happened to them or to think life has treated them unfairly. You may not even believe the diagnosis, especially if you don’t feel sick.
You may feel afraid. Some people fear cancer itself, while others may be afraid of cancer treatments and wonder how they will get through them. The fear of pain and suffering is one of the greatest fears people with cancer and their loved ones have.
You may feel guilty. You may ask yourself if you could have noticed your symptoms earlier, or wonder what you did that may have caused the cancer. You may wonder if you were exposed to something at home or work that led to cancer. Or you may worry that other members of your family will also get cancer. At this time we do not know what causes most cancers. But a few are known to be hereditary (passed from a parent to a child). This means if one family member develops it, others in the family may have a higher risk of developing it, too. This can cause even more concerns for the person newly diagnosed with cancer.
You may feel hopeless or sad if you see cancer as a roadblock to a life full of health and happiness. It’s hard to feel positive and upbeat, especially if the future is uncertain. Just thinking about treatment and the time it will take out of your life can seem like too much to handle. Feelings of sadness or uncertainty may be made worse by your past experiences with cancer.
You may have a sense of loss linked to your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Cancer can change your sense of self, that is, how you think of your body, yourself, and your future. Grief is a normal response as you give up your old ideas of yourself and begin to develop ways to cope with the new, unwanted changes in your life. It may take time for you to become aware of these losses and changes. It can help if you share your grief with someone close to you. If there’s no one near you that you want to confide in, you might want to see a mental health professional. Your feelings need care too, just like your physical body needs care.
You might feel angry. While some people may not outwardly express their anger and frustration, others may direct their anger toward family members, friends, or health care professionals. This is usually not done on purpose. If you are only trying to vent your feelings, let people know that you are not angry with them and that it’s not their fault. Also let them know that you don’t expect them to solve your problems—you just need them to listen.
Last Medical Review: 07/18/2012
Last Revised: 07/18/2012