It’s normal to feel a range of emotions when you are diagnosed with cancer. Each person deals with diagnosis and treatment differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.
Some feelings can make talking to other people difficult. We list these on this page.
Shock and disbelief
The first reaction to being told you have cancer is often shock. You may:
- not believe what’s happening
- be unable to concentrate on what someone else is saying or asking
- be able to only take in small amounts of information at a time
- have to keep asking for information to be repeated
- feel numb.
If you are in a state of shock or disbelief, you may be unable to express any emotion. This can make talking to family and friends difficult. Some people find that talking about the news can help them to accept the reality. But other people need more time to think about it before they can accept it. Only then are they ready to talk about it.
Shock and disbelief usually wear off as things become more real. But some people cope with the news they have cancer by pretending it’s not happening. This may be the only way they know how to handle the news. You may:
- not want to talk about the cancer or its treatment
- continue with your life like nothing has happened.
This is a normal reaction to distressing or difficult situations. If you feel you’re in denial, or if someone close to you points it out, don’t blame yourself or feel you must hurry to overcome it. Tell your family and friends that you aren’t ready to talk about the cancer yet and that you need more time. People should respect that this is your way of dealing with things for now, while you adjust to your situation.
Denial can become a problem if it goes on for many weeks or months. In extreme cases, it can stop people from doing things they need to do, like going for treatment or sorting out their finances. It can also cause problems if family members need to discuss certain issues but the person refuses to talk about it.
If you feel your denial is causing problems with treatment, finances or relationships, you should seek help. If you are a family member or friend, don’t try to force the person into facing their situation. Offer to go with them to see their doctor or a counsellor.
Anger can occur when you are diagnosed or any time during and after treatment. Cancer is a big interruption in your life and it’s natural to feel angry at that. Fear often gets expressed as anger. So if you have angry feelings, think about whether they are being caused by fear and uncertainty.
Anger and frustrations are often difficult to control. They may be directed at people close to you, or those who are treating you. Sometimes you may resent the fact that you have cancer while other people are healthy. You may also feel out of control and vulnerable. We have more information about ways to feel more in control on this page.
It’s important you find a positive way to express your anger. Uncontrolled anger can cause problems in your relationships with family, friends and healthcare staff. Holding back your anger can lead to depression.
Practical tips to manage anger
Practical tips to manage anger
- Identify your anger.
- Talk to someone about what is making you angry.
- Find a safe way to express your anger. For example, writing a journal or blog, doing physical activity, beating a pillow, or yelling out loud.
- Don’t let anger build up – you risk expressing it in an unhealthy way.
- Don’t take your anger out on others. This makes it more difficult for them to support you.
- Try not to hide other feelings with anger – these may be sadness, fear or guilt.
- Look out for warning signs and try calming techniques like counting to ten, deep breathing or walking away from a situation.
- Be calm and assertive when telling someone that something is making you angry. They are more likely to listen to you if you are not shouting. We have more tips on resolving conflict.
- Consider counselling if you are still struggling to express anger in a positive way.
We have a tool to help you to record things that have made you angry and things that have had a positive impact on your day.
It is taken from the website thinkaboutyourlife.org, which was developed by cancer survivors. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool.
You can download a PDF of the tool.
Some people are naturally shy or just not used to talking about personal issues. If this sounds like you, then you may find it difficult to talk about your feelings at a time when it could really help you.
You may avoid talking about your own needs and emotions because you:
- don’t want to seem demanding, needy or attention-seeking
- don’t want to worry those close to you
- feel guilty about the disruption the cancer will cause to other people’s lives.
However, there will often be relatives and friends who really want to help. Try to start a conversation with them and say what you need – even if you just want them to listen to you. You may be surprised at how willing they are to support you.
By asking for someone else’s support, it shows that we value them. Often they will feel happy knowing that you’re comfortable enough to talk with them about what’s on your mind.
If you find it difficult to talk about your feelings with the people close to you, you may want to contact a support organisation such as the British Association for counselling and Psychotherapy or Relate. They have people who you can talk to in confidence. Or you can speak to our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00.
Worrying about losing control
Many people are concerned about losing control of their feelings. You may:
- be unsure about how you will react when you talk to other people
- want to stay strong for other people
- be worried that crying will make you seem weak and distress the people you love
- be worried that you won’t be able to stop crying.
When dealing with something as difficult as cancer, it’s natural to need to cry and it’s fine if you do. Know that after a time you will naturally stop crying. This may be only for short periods at first, but these will get longer.
Sometimes the other person may also get upset and cry with you. Crying together can give both of you a real sense of relief and bring you closer together.
People react differently to similar situations. Some may not cry. Just as it’s okay for someone to cry, it’s also okay if they don’t.
We have more information about some of the emotions you might feel when you have cancer.