Facing a cancer diagnosis is one of the most challenging experiences anyone can go through.
Not only do you have to contend with the shock, fear, and uncertainty such news brings, but you’re likely to worry about the impact it’ll have on the people around you.
In the maelstrom of emotional and physical turmoil, it can feel impossible to see the path forward clearly.
That’s why we want to share some strategies for managing your emotions, reframing what’s important and making the choices that are right for you.
What we’ll be looking into:
- Living in limbo periods during the cancer diagnosis journey
- The different emotional stages of cancer diagnosis
- Managing your emotions
- Coping with other people’s feelings
The lead-up to a diagnosis
If you suspect you’ve got cancer or have been advised to undergo tests, there will be some time between medical investigations and a diagnosis.
During that limbo period, you may find that you have already gone through all sorts of scenarios in your head, including what might happen in the worst case.
It’s completely understandable that the fear of the unknown might lead to catastrophising, which is why the diagnosis appointment is so important.
Only once you have concrete answers and a treatment plan can you truly begin to understand what you’re dealing with.
How do people respond to a cancer diagnosis
Macmillan Cancer Support says it best when they write:
“Finding out that you have cancer can be a shock, even if you already suspected it. These days, many people are cured of cancer or are able to live with it for many years. But being diagnosed can still cause different fears and emotions. There is no right or wrong way to feel.”
In the Kari team, we have medical professionals who specialise in cancer care and share the views of Macmillan Cancer Support that you’ll see a range of emotions from people at the difficult moment of diagnosis.
Some patients will be shocked and express feelings of fear, rage and panic.
Others will react calmly as though a cancer diagnosis is inevitable, and the doctor is only confirming what they already know.
However, it’s important to point out that the emotional pendulum can swing, and these two reactions can be interchangeable during the appointment, let alone the days that follow.
Remember, there is no right or wrong way to feel, so sit with your emotions and allow yourself to process them.
The diagnosis to treatment interim
At your diagnosis appointment, you will be given a treatment plan, but it’s likely there will be a delay before that treatment begins.
This can be a particularly tricky time as the news sinks in, but the practical solutions – whether that’s chemotherapy, radiotherapy, or another medical intervention – aren’t yet in progress.
Some people will withdraw and freeze up, while others will try to counteract feelings of powerlessness by going all out to gather information and start doing everything they can.
Cancer charity Maggie’s has an excellent piece on how to cope with diagnosis in both practical and emotional terms.
Ways of coping with a cancer diagnosis:
- Be careful what you read on the internet. Use recognised cancer information sites, as information is tailored to be realistic but not overwhelming.
- Acknowledge your emotions: you’ll go through a range of emotions over the next days and weeks.
- Get to know the team that will be looking after you: If you have a specialist nurse, make contact, and ask questions.
- If you’re anxious about results, things seem to be taking longer than predicted or you are feeling unwell don’t be frightened to chase things up.
To read the full list of ways to cope with a cancer diagnosis, visit maggies.org
Coping with other people’s feelings
There’s no doubt that one person’s cancer diagnosis can be devastating for all those close to them, particularly their family.
But please know that it’s not your responsibility to make this better for anyone else.
It will be difficult to see the people you love break down and express their own fears and feelings.
But as Maggie’s advises: “Keep in touch with the people you care about, but don’t feel you have to be seen to ‘cope’ – this is your time to reflect and regroup.”
There are resources out there you can point your loved ones to, including this excellent guide from MacMillan Cancer Support.
If you are worried about helping your children cope, take a look at Cancer Support UK’s advice.
Understanding and managing your emotions
The Mental Health Foundation research has found that people living with cancer have an increased risk of developing mental health problems.
It’s completely understandable as you run through a range of different emotions that are similar to the five stages of grief.
How to cope with different emotional stages
The first stage of grief is denial, and when people withdraw or shut down emotionally following a diagnosis, it’s a similar scenario.
Research from Stamford Medicine argues that denial in the short term can be helpful.
They write: “Denial is often a positive coping strategy because it enables the patient to gradually face the reality of his or her illness, in a piecemeal manner, without feeling overwhelmed.
“In our experience, patients seldom remain in denial; it fades away over time, as indeed it should, for the good of overall adjustment.”
Be reassured that if you are in denial, it’s likely to be temporary and over time, you will hopefully be able to come to terms with your cancer diagnosis.
Of course, if that doesn’t happen, please seek help from your medical team or a mental health organisations like MIND.
Dealing with anger and frustration
When you get a cancer diagnosis, you may begin grieving and might feel angry and frustrated that your future might now be different to how you thought it would be.
Cancer Research UK says that you must “acknowledge the difficult feelings you are experiencing – they are normal responses.”
When coping with anger or frustration, talking therapies can be beneficial. we recommend seeking professional support from a counsellor or support group.
If you feel able, talk your feelings over with family, friends or peers so you can explore and rationalise difficult emotions.
You may also want to do some exercise or self-care to help relieve or soothe emotional turmoil.
Check out Cancer Research UK’s resources to see what’s right for you.
Taking back control
In a situation where we feel powerless, many people will try to wrestle back control.
For some cancer patients, that’s by thoroughly researching into cancer literature, trying alternative therapies and setting themselves challenges.
You may find it beneficial to set yourself goals throughout your journey, from small steps to bigger visions.
The Teenage Cancer Trust supports young people living with cancer, and provides an excellent resource on goal setting that could help, whatever age you are.
Remember, even if the goal is to get up and get dressed that day, that’s ok. By achieving modest goals, you can feel more in control of your life.
Setting up good habits
Taking positive action for your health and well-being is vital on this journey.
Make sure you are eating a healthy diet, staying well-hydrated, moving your body (even gentle exercise will help) and getting plenty of sleep.
The American Cancer Society also supports the virtues of remaining positive and optimistic.
They write: “Many cancer survivors and thrivers believe being optimistic and positive makes their outlook on life better.”
Having a positive mentality doesn’t mean you have to walk around radiating joy and happiness.
As Cancer Research UK says: “You can be positive and think positively without always feeling cheerful or optimistic.”
Find their advice on staying positive here.
Like the grieving process, there will hopefully be a stage of acceptance where you come to terms with your diagnosis and learn to live with it.
When you feel ready, think about the life you want and how you want to navigate your cancer journey.
In the UK, the NHS practices person-centred care where you and your wishes will be at the heart of the treatment plan. You may wish to research via reputable sources, and talk to family and friends. have
Your medical team will be able to help guide you through the decisions you will need to make for you and your body.
Maggie’s suggests that: “Finding a support mechanism that works for you is a good way of taking back control. This can be through support groups, online forums, and centres which offer support.”
It’s a good idea to talk to people who’ve been through what you are facing. Peer support is proven to be incredibly valuable and helps to relieve anxiety and fear.
While we hope you’ve got family and friends to lean on, there’s nothing quite as powerful as speaking to someone who knows exactly what you are going through.
Looking to the future
Coping with a cancer diagnosis is not easy, so be as kind to yourself as possible.
The treatment and outcomes may not be certain, but you can empower yourself by identifying what matters to you and taking an active role in your treatment.
Surround yourself with the people who uplift you and give you the emotional and peer support you need.
Understand that your emotions will ebb and flow, and every day will be different..
No matter how you feel, you do have the strength to walk this path – so take it one step at a time.
At Kari Health, we know everybody’s experience with cancer is different. We are here for you.
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What the experts say:
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