Cancer and your feelings

It is natural to have many different thoughts and feelings after a cancer diagnosis. Some people feel upset, shocked or anxious, while others feel angry, guilty or alone. There is no right way for you to feel.

Emotions can be difficult for you, and people close to you, to deal with. You may find that some feelings pass with time, while others last longer. Try to find a way of coping that suits you.

It is impossible to know how you will react to a diagnosis of cancer. Common feelings include:

  • shock and denial
  • fear and anxiety
  • guilt
  • sadness and depression
  • anger.

You may also have different feelings if your doctor has told you your cancer is advanced.

There are many ways to manage your emotions. Sharing your thoughts and feelings is often a good place to start. Try talking with someone close. Remember, help is always available if you need it. If you are struggling to cope, speak to your doctor, family or friends.

The way you feel can influence the way you cope with cancer and its treatment. But there is no evidence that feelings can affect the cancer itself.

Common thoughts and feelings

Having cancer means having to deal with issues and situations that may frighten and challenge you. There is no right or wrong way to feel. People have different reactions and emotions at different times. You may experience sudden changes in your moods and feelings. These emotions are part of the process many people go through when dealing with an illness.

Common fears and thoughts about cancer may include:

  • ‘I don’t want to lose my independence and freedom.’
  • ‘I don’t want my family or friends to treat me differently.’
  • ‘I don’t know how I’ll cope financially.’
  • ‘I might miss out on a promotion or lose important work contacts.’
  • ‘I may have to make big changes to my lifestyle.’
  • ‘I may die.’

These are likely to be very real concerns for you and those close to you. It’s fine to worry about them and be upset by them. And it’s fine to cry and say how you feel when things feel tough.

At any time after your cancer diagnosis, you may have the following feelings:


Shock and disbelief

You may find the diagnosis hard to believe and feel numb. You may not be able to take in much information and keep asking the same questions. You might find it hard to talk to family or friends about the cancer. We have more information on the benefits of talking. This includes some tips on asking for support, and what to do if you don’t want to talk.


Avoidance

Some people cope by not wanting to know very much about the cancer and by not talking about it. If you feel like this, let your family and friends know that you don’t want to talk about it right now. You can also tell your doctor if there are things you don’t want to know or talk about yet.

Occasionally, this avoidance can be extreme. Some people may not believe that they have cancer. This is sometimes called being in denial. It may stop them making decisions about treatment. If this happens, it’s very important for them to get help from their doctor.

Sometimes, avoidance is the other way around. Family and friends may seem to avoid you and the fact that you have cancer. They may not want to talk about it or they might change the subject. This is usually because they are also finding the cancer difficult to cope with, and they may need support too. Try to let them know how this makes you feel and that talking openly with them about your illness will help you.


Anger

You may get angry with the people close to you. You may even resent other people for being well. These are normal reactions. Let people close to you know that you are angry at your illness and not at them. Finding ways to help you relax and reduce stress can help with anger. You can also take positive steps to help yourself.

It is important to remember that everyone reacts differently. There is no right or wrong way to feel.


Guilt and blame

Some people feel guilty or blame themselves or others for the cancer. You may try to find reasons for why it has happened to you. Most of the time, it’s impossible to know exactly what has caused a person’s cancer. Over time, several different factors may act together to cause a cancer. Doctors don’t fully understand all of these factors yet. Instead of trying to find reasons, try to focus on looking after yourself and getting the help and support you need.


Loneliness and isolation

It is common for people affected by cancer to feel lonely or isolated. These feelings can happen at any stage of the illness.

You might feel that no one understands what you are going through. Or that other people are trying to be so positive that you can’t say what you really feel. You may feel lonely even if you are surrounded by people close to you.

You may find that the less you talk about it, the more the cancer becomes all you think about, and the more alone you feel. Finding the courage to talk to just one person can be the first step towards helping you feel better.


Loss of control and independence

One of the hardest things to cope with can be the feeling that the cancer and its treatment have taken over your life, and that you’ve lost control.

Cancer may take over certain aspects of your life, but there are often things you can do to help.


Loss of confidence

Cancer and its treatments can change a person’s role in their family or at work. You may not have the physical energy to do the normal, everyday tasks that you did before, such as going to work or doing jobs around the house. Things you used to find easy may now be much more difficult. These things plus the sense of no longer having control over your life may cause you to lose some confidence.


Sadness and depression

You may feel sad that cancer has interrupted plans you had or that your future feels uncertain. Feeling sad is a natural reaction to loss. It may come and go throughout your treatment and after it has finished. For most people, these periods of sadness will pass. But for some people, their sadness may continue or get worse. Their sadness may be turning into depression.


Withdrawal

There may be times when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This is a very normal reaction for some people.

However, if you find that you would rather be on your own for long periods of time and avoid talking to other people, this could be a sign that you’re depressed. We have more information about depression and what can help.

There may be times when you feel too tired and helpless to think about what could help. You will have good days and bad days, and it’s important for you and your family to realise this. Over time, people usually find things they can do to help them feel better.


Advanced cancer

If your doctor has told you your cancer is advanced, you may feel shocked and find it hard to accept. You may feel frightened about the future, or angry with other people or yourself. With time, these feelings can become more manageable. Some people find that starting to make plans and decisions helps.

Although it is rare for advanced cancer to be cured, some people may live with it for a long time – sometimes for years. During this time, many people carry on with their day-to-day lives and do things that are important to them.

Our information about advanced cancer has suggestions to help you manage difficult feelings.


Loneliness and isolation

It’s common for anyone affected by cancer to feel lonely or isolated. These feelings can happen at any stage of the illness: at the time of diagnosis, or during or after treatment.

There are many reasons why you might feel alone. It may be because you feel like no one understands what you’re going through, or that other people are trying to be so positive that you can’t say what you genuinely feel. Or it may be that your appearance has changed as a result of the cancer or its treatment. For example, some cancer treatments can cause hair loss or weight loss. These changes can add to your sense of being isolated and different from those around you. You can feel lonely even if you’re surrounded by people close to you.

The sense of isolation can be made worse if you find it difficult to talk about your situation. It can be hard to tell your family and friends how you really feel, as you may want to protect them from a distressing conversation. You may tell them you’re fine even when you’re not. You might find yourself giving people other reasons for not being yourself, such as, ‘I’m just feeling tired’.

You may find that the less you talk about it, the more the cancer becomes all you think about, and the more alone you feel. Finding the courage to talk to just one person can be the first step towards helping you feel better.

If you live alone

If you live by yourself, you can feel even more alone and unsure of who to turn to. You may also have practical things to sort out. For example, you may need to work out who will look after your pet when you’re in hospital, or how you will do everyday tasks like shopping when you’re back at home.

Some people have family and friends who live nearby. But if you don’t have anyone near you, it may be hard to know where to get help. You may find it helpful to join a local cancer support group, where you can meet people in a similar situation.

The internet has become a common way of socialising and keeping in touch with people. There are a number of online groups for people affected by cancer.

Some people find they feel less alone after seeing someone in a similar position with tips and advice on how to cope. Cancer Stories is a free online collection of real life stories showing how people coped with their cancer. Visit Cancer Stories to watch videos of people affected by cancer. We also have lots of videos of people talking about their cancer experience. You can watch them all on Macmillan's Youtube channel.

What may help

There are things you can do to help you feel less isolated and also help you manage your emotions. These may include:

  • talking to family and friends
  • joining a self-help and support group
  • finding online support
  • speaking to healthcare professionals.

Different things work for different people, so you may need to try a few to see what you find the most helpful.

You can use our online community to talk to people in our chat rooms, blog your journey, make friends and join support groups.


Fear and uncertainty

Cancer is a frightening word. Understandably, one of the fears expressed by many people with cancer is ‘Am I going to die?’

When a cancer isn’t curable, modern treatments often mean that the disease can be controlled for some time and many people will be able to do most of the things they did before in that time.

'Will I be in pain?' and ‘Will any pain be unbearable?’ are other common fears. If you do have pain, there are many drugs and other techniques that are very successful at relieving pain or keeping it under control.

Our information about managing cancer pain describes the wide variety of medical and complementary treatments available for controlling pain.

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 its possible outcomes in detail with your doctor. You may find it helpful to make a list of the questions you want to ask them.

You may find the doctors can’t answer your questions fully, or that their answers sound vague. 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. Finding out more about your illness can help and talking with family and friends may relieve tension.

You might find it helpful to talk to other people in your situation. Call our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 to find out if there’s a support group in your area. Or you can visit our online community to chat any time with people who know what you’re going through. Some people find some form of spiritual support helpful at this time, and you may like to talk to a spiritual or religious adviser.


Anxiety

Feeling frightened and anxious is a natural reaction to an uncertain situation. But if it affects your ability to cope with day-to-day life, help may be needed. Symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • not being able to concentrate
  • irritability
  • being easily distracted
  • restlessness
  • a constant feeling of dread.

Anxiety may also have the following physical symptoms:

  • tense muscles
  • breathlessness
  • dizziness
  • sweating
  • a dry mouth
  • being unable to sleep
  • tiredness
  • digestive problems.

Anxiety is how your body reacts when you feel you are in danger. This is called the ‘fight or flight’ response. Your body is preparing you to either fight something seen as a threat or to flee from the danger.

Reassurance from other people that ‘everything will be alright’ can sometimes make the anxiety worse. You may feel that they do not take your concerns seriously, or that they are struggling to accept your illness.

We have more information about how your feelings can affect you physically.


Hopes and fears

You might like to write down your hopes and fears. It might help you talk to people about what is frightening you. Even if you don’t want to share it, you may still find it useful.

You may find it helpful to use the 'hopes and fears' person-centred thinking tool, which was developed by cancer survivors for the Think About Your Life website. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool. There is also space for you to think about the next steps you could take to manage your concerns.

Back to Dealing with your emotions

Feeling alone

People with cancer often feel lonely or isolated. There are ways to manage these feelings.

Coping with depression

Depression can be difficult to recognise, so try not to ignore your feelings. Help is always available.