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Most people feel overwhelmed when they are told they have cancer and experience many different emotions.
These are part of the process that people go through while dealing with their illness. Partners, family members and friends often have similar feelings and may also need support and guidance to cope.
Reactions differ from one person to another - there is no right or wrong way to feel. We describe some of the common emotional effects here. However, reactions vary and people have different emotions at different times.
Our section on the emotional effects of cancer| discusses the feelings and emotions that you may have and has advice on how to cope with them.
Often disbelief is the immediate reaction when cancer is diagnosed. You may feel numb and unable to express any emotion. You may also find that you can take in only a small amount of information and so you have to keep asking the same questions again and again, or you need to be told the same bits of information repeatedly. This need for repetition is a common reaction to shock.
Some people find that their feelings of disbelief make it difficult for them to talk about their illness with family and friends. For others it may be the main topic of conversation, as it’s the main thing on their mind.
You may find our section on talking about your cancer| helpful.
Cancer is a frightening word surrounded by fears and myths. One of the greatest fears people have is that they will die. Many cancers are curable if caught at an early stage. When a cancer is not curable, current treatments often mean that it can be controlled for years.
Other people also worry about the symptoms| of cancer such as pain|. In fact, some people with cancer have no pain at all. If you do have pain or other symptoms, there are many medicines and other ways to help relieve them or keep them under control.
Many people are anxious about whether their treatment| will work and how to cope with possible side effects. It’s best to discuss your individual treatment and possible outcomes in detail with your doctor.
You may find that doctors can’t answer your questions fully, or that their answers sound vague. It’s often impossible for them to say for certain how effective treatment has been. Doctors know approximately how many people will benefit from a certain treatment, but they can’t predict the future for a particular person. Many people find this uncertainty hard to live with.
Uncertainty about the future can cause a lot of tension, but your fears may be worse than the reality. Finding out about your illness can be reassuring. Discussing what you have found out with your family and friends can also help to relieve some of the worry.
Many people cope with their illness by not wanting to know much or talk much about it. If that’s the way you feel, then just explain that you’d prefer not to talk about your illness, at least for the time being.
Sometimes, however, it’s the other way round. You may find that your family and friends don’t want to talk about your illness. They may appear to ignore the fact that you have cancer, perhaps by playing down your anxieties and symptoms or deliberately changing the subject. If this upsets or hurts you, try telling them. Perhaps start by reassuring them that you do know what is happening and that it will help you if you can talk to them about your illness.
People often feel very angry about their illness. Anger can also hide other feelings, such as fear or sadness. You might direct your anger at the people who are closest to you and at the doctors and nurses who are caring for you.
It’s understandable that you may be very upset by many aspects of your illness, so you don’t need to feel guilty about your angry thoughts or irritable moods. Bear in mind that your relatives and friends may sometimes think that your anger is directed at them, when it’s really directed at your illness. It may help to tell them this.
Sometimes people blame themselves or others for their illness, trying to find reasons to explain why it has happened to them. This may be because we often feel better if we know why something has happened. In most cases it’s impossible to know exactly what has caused a person’s cancer. So there’s no reason for you to feel that anyone is to blame.
Understandably, you may feel resentful because you have cancer while other people are well. These feelings may crop up from time to time during the course of your illness and treatment. Relatives too can sometimes resent the changes that your illness makes to their lives. It usually helps to discuss these feelings, rather than keeping them to yourself.
There may be times when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This can be hard for your family and friends who want to share this difficult time with you. It may make it easier for them to cope if you reassure them that, although you don’t feel like discussing your illness at the moment, you will talk to them about it when you are ready.
Sometimes depression can stop you wanting to talk. If you or your family think you may be depressed, discuss this with your GP. They can refer you to a doctor or counsellor who specialises in the emotional problems of people with cancer or prescribe an antidepressant drug for you.
Content last reviewed: 1 December 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
Alfie explains his story of coping with depression.
Hear how counselling can help people affected by cancer.
Darren explains how he coped with uncertainty
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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