After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families

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How do I cope?

Taking in the news

At first, most people need some time to adjust to the fact that they have cancer. They need time to think about what’s most important in their lives and get support from loved ones. For many, this is an emotionally hard time. Feelings such as disbelief, shock, fear, and anger are all normal. These feelings use up a lot of mental energy, which can make it hard to take in and understand all of the medical information shared by the health care team. You will likely need some time to absorb and understand what your diagnosis and treatment options mean to you and your loved ones, both physically and emotionally.

Coping skills

People cope with cancer just like they cope with many other problems in life – each person does it in their own way. With time and practice, most people find ways to go on with their work, hobbies, and social relationships. They find new or different ways to live their lives to the fullest.

As you look for a way of coping that works for you, you may want to try some of these ideas:

  • Learn as much as you can about your cancer and its treatment. Some people find that learning about their diagnosis and treatment gives them a sense of control over what’s happening. Along with your health care team, we can answer your questions about cancer and put you in touch with other resources. Call us at 1-800-227-2345 or visit us at
  • Express your feelings. Some people find that giving some kind of outlet to their feelings helps. Many people feel that expressing sadness, fear, or anger is a sign of weakness. In fact, the opposite is often true. It’s much harder to express powerful emotions than it is to try to hide them. Hiding your feelings can also make it tougher to find a positive way to deal with them. There are many ways to express your feelings other than talking. Find one that fits you. You might try to talk with trusted friends or relatives, keep a private journal, or even express your feelings through music, painting, or drawing.
  • Take care of yourself. Take time to do something you enjoy every day. Prepare your favorite meal, spend time with a caring friend or loved one, watch a movie, meditate, listen to your favorite music, or do whatever you find most enjoyable.
  • Exercise. If you feel up to it, and your doctor agrees that it’s OK, start a mild exercise program such as walking, yoga, swimming, or stretching. Exercise can help you feel better.
  • Reach out to others. There may be times when finding strength is hard and things feel overwhelming. It’s very hard for any one person to handle having cancer all alone. Try to widen your circle of resources by reaching out to friends, family, or support organizations. These people can help you not feel alone on this journey. They will be there to share your fears, hopes, and triumphs every step of the way.
  • Work to keep a positive attitude. While a positive attitude doesn’t guarantee that you will beat cancer, staying hopeful can improve the quality of your life as you deal with cancer. Cancer is a complex disease, and people’s attitudes don’t cause or cure it. Keep in mind that having an upbeat attitude does not mean that you and your loved ones should never feel sad, stressed, or unsure. You will feel down at times. When you feel blue, talking about your feelings can help you feel more in control rather than overpowered by your emotions.

Cancer and depression

Many people go through a time of grief and sadness when they first learn that they have cancer. They grieve the loss of health and certainty in their lives. This sadness may seem like depression, but it’s not the same. Grieving – feeling sadness, fear, anger, or going through crying spells – is a normal, healthy reaction to a serious health concern. It usually doesn’t last a long time, and is a normal response to a profound change in a person’s life. You can learn more in Anxiety, Fear, and Depression. Call us for a free copy or read it on

About 1 in 4 people with cancer becomes truly depressed. This can make it hard for them to follow treatment plans because of very low energy, decreased drive to do things, trouble making decisions, and feeling useless or helpless. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns or questions about depression.

Signs of depression

You may be depressed if your time of grieving:

  • Lasts for weeks and does not seem to be getting any better
  • Has you feeling worthless or hopeless
  • Causes problems with your day-to-day activities (such as being too sad to leave the house or get out of bed)

Getting help

Some people who may be depressed are embarrassed or afraid to admit it. It may help to know that depression can be caused by the chemical changes that take place in your body when you have cancer. It’s not a sign of weakness, nor is it anyone’s fault. Depression can be treated with medicines, counseling, or a combination of both. Treatment for depression can help you feel better and regain a sense of control and hope for the future.

Last Medical Review: 03/06/2014
Last Revised: 04/07/2014