Finding out you have advanced cancer

You’re likely to feel a range of strong emotions when you find out you have advanced cancer. It’s common to feel shocked and frightened, or angry about your situation. Most people find that these feelings become easier to manage with time.

Talking to others can be very helpful. It’s not unusual to find it hard to talk to close family and friends. You might feel like you’re trying to protect them. But being open with those closest to you can help them to understand the best way to help you.

If you’d like to talk to someone else, ask your GP to refer you to a counsellor or support group. You could also use the internet to find online communities where other people affected by cancer are sharing their feelings and experiences.

Some people find support by talking to a religious leader or by writing in a diary. Complementary therapies may also help to reduce stress and anxiety. Talk to your GP to find out what services are available near you.

Coping with the news

It’s common to feel overwhelmed by different feelings when your doctor tells you your cancer is advanced. Some people’s cancer may be advanced when they are first diagnosed. For others, the cancer may spread or come back after treatment. 

Although it is rare for advanced cancer to be cured, people may live with it for a long time – sometimes for years. This may mean having different treatments when they’re needed, or sometimes having ongoing treatment to control the cancer. During this time, many people carry on with their day-to-day lives and doing things that are important to them. Sometimes it may not be possible to control the cancer any longer or a person may not be well enough to have treatment. In this case, their cancer doctor or specialist nurse will always make sure they are given treatments to control any symptoms they have. 

When you first find out your cancer is advanced, you may feel shocked and find it hard to take in. You may feel frightened about the future, or angry with other people or yourself. With time, these feelings can become more manageable as you start making decisions and plans.

You might find it helpful to talk to others who understand if you’re dealing with difficult news. You can visit our Online Community to talk to people in similar situations.

Knowing that your illness may not be curable can give you an opportunity to decide what’s important to you, and how you want to live your life. Concentrating on what you can enjoy and achieve can give you pleasure. It may also help you cope if you find you can’t meet other goals.

Coping with feelings

It’s natural to have a mix of emotions when coping with advanced cancer, such as fear or anger. These feelings can occur at different times, and they may vary in strength and frequency. However, people often find that over time their feelings become easier to cope with.


Many people with advanced cancer feel frightened. You may have times when you feel afraid of the illness itself, the symptoms, or the treatment and its possible side effects. You may worry about the effect it will have on your family. People often worry about the future or about dying. 


It’s natural to feel angry if you have advanced cancer. You may feel angry about feeling unwell, going through treatment and having to cope with the side effects. You could also be angry about the impact the cancer has had on your life. It may have affected your ability to work or your relationships. You may feel frustrated that your plans will be disrupted by tests and treatment, and that your long-term plans have suddenly become uncertain. Living with the uncertainty that comes with advanced cancer is likely to be physically and emotionally demanding.

Talking about feelings

We all express our feelings in different ways. It’s often clear how someone is feeling by their behaviour, what they say and how they say it. Sometimes though, one emotion can disguise another. For example, a person might be frightened but express their fear by being short-tempered and irritable, or angry with those around them. Talking about our feelings can help us understand our behaviour and what’s behind it. This isn’t always easy. 

If you can, find someone you can talk to about how you feel, such as a family member or friend. Some people prefer to talk to someone outside their immediate circle of family and friends. Your GP, palliative care nurse or doctors and nurses at the hospital will usually ask how you are. This will give you the opportunity to talk about your feelings and emotions if you want to. You might find this easy if you already know them and feel comfortable with them. If you would prefer to talk to someone else, they may be able to refer you to someone who’s trained to listen, such as a counsellor.

We have more information about the emotions you might be feeling and ways of coping with them. You might also find our section on talking about cancer useful.

Emotional support


Counsellors are trained to listen and help people deal with difficult situations. They may be able to help you find your own solutions to the problems you’re facing. This can be very helpful, as cancer can affect many aspects of your life. Talking to someone who is supportive and not personally involved in your situation can also help those close to you.

Your GP or hospital doctor may be able to refer you to a counsellor. Or you may prefer to go to someone independent. Find counselling in your area.

Support and self-help groups

However supportive your family and friends are, you may find it useful to spend some time with people who are going through a similar experience to you. There are many support groups for people with cancer and their relatives. Most have been set up by someone who wanted to meet other people in a similar situation, and others are attached to hospitals. Some hospital cancer units or hospices have day centres or drop-in facilities for outpatients.

Groups offer support and friendship, and it can be reassuring to talk over your worries with someone who has been through something similar. It can also be helpful to meet people who have lived with their cancer for a long time and who enjoy life.

Not everyone feels comfortable in a group, and it’s important to do what’s right for you. You know yourself better than anyone else.

Online support

Many people now get support on the internet. There are online support groups, social networking sites, forums, chat rooms and blogs for people affected by cancer. You can use these to share your experiences, ask questions, and get and give advice.

You might find it useful to visit our Online Community where you can share your experiences with people who know what you're going through.

Spiritual and religious issues

Some people find they become more aware of religious or spiritual feelings when they’re told their cancer has come back or spread. People with a religious faith are often greatly supported by it during their illness.

Even if you haven’t attended religious services regularly in the past or aren’t sure what you believe, you can still talk to a priest, rabbi, imam or other religious leader. They are used to dealing with uncertainty and won’t be shocked. They’re not there to preach to you, but to comfort you and help you find peace of mind. If you’re in hospital, you can ask for a visit from a hospital chaplain or other religious or spiritual leader.

Some people with advanced cancer find themselves questioning their faith. If you’re in this situation, talking to a spiritual leader may help.

Medicines that can help

Emotional distress can be reduced with the support of family, friends, support groups, counselling or some of the self-help techniques described in this section.

However, sometimes feelings of anxiety and depression start to affect your ability to deal with everything that’s happening to you. In this case, your GP or hospital specialist may be able to prescribe antidepressants, anxiety-reducing drugs or sleeping pills. These can help you cope with your situation.

Back to Coping with advanced cancer

Decisions about treatment

You may have lots of questions about your treatment options. You can talk to your doctors and nurses about these.

Who can help?

You can get care and support at home, in a hospital or in a hospice. This depends on your needs and preferences.

What is CPR?

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can be used to try to restart the heart and breathing if they have stopped.

Making CPR decisions

You may be asked to make a decision with your family and healthcare team about whether you want cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to be attempted.