Managing your feelings

Cancer can bring a range of emotions. Talking about the cancer may help you come to terms with things. If you find talking about feelings difficult, you could try writing a diary or blog.

Initially you may feel shocked and not believe what is happening. You may cope by not wanting to talk about the cancer, or by trying to continue with your life like nothing has happened. This is common but it can cause problems if it continues for a long time.

Anger is a normal reaction to cancer. It can help to talk about what is making you angry, or express your anger through writing or exercise. Try not to take your anger out on others. If you feel angry or frustrated, try counting to ten or taking deep breaths.

You may feel guilty. Talking about how you feel with relatives and friends can help get things into perspective. If you are worried that talking will mean you lose control of your feelings remember it’s okay to cry. It can be a helpful release.

Feelings that could make talking difficult

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.

Denial

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

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.

Guilt

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.

When I was going through the worst times, I used to write down the good things that happened each day. It helped me focus on the positives in my life.

Bronwen


Talking about your feelings

Some people find it easy to talk about their feelings. However, many people aren’t used to doing this and can feel uncomfortable.

If you, or a family member or friend, have strong emotions and don’t talk about them, it can make it hard to talk about anything. So if either of you feels angry, afraid, embarrassed or sad, your conversation will feel difficult until one of you talks openly about your feelings. If you’re able to, try saying something like, ‘I’m sorry I seem in such a bad mood today, but I’ve just been told that…’ You may then suddenly find that it becomes much easier to talk.

We have a tool to help you to write down some of your feelings. You may find it useful to clarify what you’re feeling. You may also use it as a starting point for a conversation.

It is taken from the website thinkaboutyourlife.org, which was developed by cancer survivors.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

I had low days, when I’d cry all day. But without my friends and family to pick me up and keep me going, it would have been much worse.

Colleen


Tips for dealing with your emotions

Always accept any strong feelings – whether they are your own or those of someone you’re close to.

Always try to describe your feelings and not simply act on them. For example, if you say, ‘I’m feeling really angry today because…’, this can start a conversation. But if you show your anger by being sharp and irritable, it can make talking more difficult.

It’s okay to feel any way you like. The way you feel is the way you feel – emotions are not right or wrong. But if you try to cover up strong feelings, problems can become more difficult to solve.

Don’t be afraid to tell the other person how much they mean to you. We don’t often do this. But when there’s a crisis, it’s really worthwhile to tell the other person how you feel about them.

Don’t be afraid to say you’re unsure. If you don’t know how you feel, or if you don’t know what’s going to happen or how you’re going to cope, it’s fine to say so.

Words are not always needed. Holding someone’s hand, hugging them or simply sitting together in silence can often mean as much as, or more than, words.

Everybody has some regrets in their life. Don’t feel that you’re not allowed to talk about yours. More than any other emotion, regret can be reduced when it’s shared. This may strengthen the bond between you and those close to you.


Taking control of your situation

It is often easier to talk about something when we feel in control of the situation. Cancer can take this feeling of control away. This can feel very threatening and frightening.

To get back a feeling of control, you could:

  • try to find out answers to any questions you have
  • think about how you are going to deal with issues.

When people feel more in control, they often find it easier to talk about the cancer to other people.

We have a tool to help you to think about the decisions you need to make and the people who need to be involved in these decisions.

It is taken from the website thinkaboutyourlife.org, which was developed by cancer survivors.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

Getting information

Learning about the cancer and its treatment can give you back some feeling of control by helping you know what to expect. You can ask your doctor or nurse to tell you about the cancer and its treatment, or you can get information from cancer support organisations.

Many people find it helps to focus on the present and not look too far ahead. Try to take each day as it comes and avoid thinking about ‘what ifs’ and ‘maybes’.

We also have advice on getting information from your healthcare staff and other reliable sources of information.

Complementary therapies

Complementary therapies include relaxation, visualisation and meditation. These can help some people cope with cancer and give a feeling of being in control. Some hospitals offer complementary therapies as part of their cancer services. You can ask if any therapies are available at your hospital. We have more information about cancer and complementary therapies, which you might find helpful.

Writing

Some people find it helpful to keep a diary, journal or online blog where they can write down all their thoughts, feelings and frustrations. Some people also write down their feelings about any good or positive things that happen to them. Keeping a diary can help you work through various problems. Some people find it can give them back a sense of control and perspective and help them deal with emotions and difficult situations. Creative writing may also help you to relax and express your feelings.

You can set up an online blog on Macmillan’s online community.

Back to If you have cancer

Talking and relationships

Cancer can affect relationships and sexuality. But there are things that can help you cope if you are in a relationship or if you are single.