Coping with the Emotional Rollercoaster of a Cancer Diagnosis

Woman with cancer ribbon

What goes through a person’s mind after hearing those dreaded words: “I am sorry, but you have cancer”? The immense tide of feelings that someone will experience after being diagnosed with cancer has been described as an emotional rollercoaster. Immediately following diagnosis, it can be hard to get your bearing. You might not know what to think about the cancer itself, how to get treatment, or how to begin to talk with loved ones. The raw emotion can be one of the toughest aspects of living with cancer, but there are ways to cope. Let’s start by looking at some of the more common emotions people feel after being diagnosed. Then we can look at how best to manage them.

I am afraid …
Fear is common among cancer patients. People worry about what lies ahead of them, what will happen to their bodies as a result of treatment, and death itself. As many psychologists can tell you, fear often stems from the unknown. People fear that which they do not fully understand, but we can combat this with knowledge.

One thing people need to realize is that cancer is not an automatic death sentence. Through various scientific discoveries and cancer clinical trials, we are advancing new methods of treatment every year. There are millions of cancer survivors alive today.

This can’t be happening to me!
A diagnosis ranks as one of the most upsetting points during the cancer experience. Feelings of anxiety are normal, and often persist throughout the treatment process. It’s not unusual to experience denial after being diagnosed. It can be difficult to come to grips with the news.

During this period, you may not be able to fully perceive your situation or think about what’s next. Over time you will develop the skills you need to cope. This will come as you learn more about the cancer and its effects, and as you spend time with people who understand what you are experiencing and can coach you through it.

Frustration and anger
Along with fear and anxiety, cancer patients often struggle with anger. This anger can run deep, and it can be hard to adequately express. People don’t typically plan for something like this, so a cancer diagnosis often requires changing plans or perhaps letting go of some dreams. It may affect your job and relationships.

The key is learning how to express these frustrations in a positive way. You may be wondering how that is possible, but rest assured that it is. Many cancer patients have found the answer through a counselor, a support group, even a friend.

In fact, today there are many outlets, such as online chat rooms, where cancer patients can vent their frustrations and receive helpful feedback, allowing them to deal with their anger constructively. This helps to guard against misplaced anger, which can sometimes be directed toward loved ones.

Dealing with depression
The depression that often follows diagnosis is different from the chronic mental depression that affects many other people. The term used to describe what cancer patients experience is called reactive depression, and it is a natural psychological response to immense shock. It’s important to realize that the way you are feeling is normal.

Take some time to allow yourself to get used to the feeling that accompanies a loss of control or self-image. Once you have settled in, try to take steps to become active in your cancer treatment plan. Patients who refuse to feel helpless often do much better in the long run because the battle against cancer is as much a mental struggle as it is a physical one. However, you should never feel like you need to do this on your own. Counselors and other support groups can help guide you through any depression.

Our emotions are a part of what makes us human. However, we can let them get the best of us at times. Feeling scared, anxious, sad, or just plain angry is part of the emotional distress caused by cancer. Remember that it is normal to feel these things, but you don’t have to deal with them alone. Help is available in a variety of forms.

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The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Melanie

    Melanie

    September 25th, 2012 at 3:20 PM

    You know what really makes me angry?
    The fact that I was recently diagnosed with skin cancer and it is like my husband has chosen to go off into a different world. What’s that all about?!
    It’s like he thinks that if he buries his head in the samd it won’t be true, it won’t be the reality, and this is something that I feel like I am now having to battle on my own.
    I never thought that he would zone out on me like this, I just kind of thought that he would always be there for me when I needed him to be.
    But I think that I may have been wrong. the going has gotten a little tough and he has not been there for me at all.

  • edgar w

    edgar w

    September 25th, 2012 at 4:21 PM

    most people think cancer means they’re gonna die.even seen a friend assume this first hand.there is a lot that can be done and as the article mentions there are many many cancer survivors leading normal lives today.I think the fear,more than the cancer itself,causes more people to go into depression and have such thoughts.

    its like how many people are afraid of snakes.they do not know a lot about them but snakes just represent something horrible dangerous to them and they will flee at the sight of one,not knowing that they are wonderful creatures and some of them even make great pets.

  • kathy

    kathy

    September 25th, 2012 at 11:51 PM

    never easy to come to terms with something as big as cancer diagnosis!had a friend go through all this and the doctor gave him three-four months.he often spent time alone and never really tried to make his final few months happy.I think the very feeling of being diagnosed with cancer and the feeling that comes with knowing when you will depart got to him.and even more so because he was just thirty years old.

    it takes a lot of courage to face a situation like this and sometimes even the best of us do not find it.

  • Peyton

    Peyton

    September 26th, 2012 at 3:46 AM

    I would like to think that to get help is just as simple as realizing that you need help and then seeking it out. But that is not how it typically goes. Most of us are convinced that this roller coaster ride is something thatwe can handle on our own and we hesitate to get that help until we are so emotionally overwhelmed that we have a hard time making it through the day. Our emotions do often get the better of us, but I promise you that if you have created a strong support system in your life before your illness then those who are truly oyur friends will continue to be there for you. They are not going to let you down when the going gets tough.

  • frankie r

    frankie r

    September 26th, 2012 at 7:05 AM

    That’s why ya gotta have friends. . . ;)

  • ADAN

    ADAN

    September 26th, 2012 at 2:29 PM

    There is no clear path to take to cope with something like this.I think an optimistic person would be better equipped to deal with the pain and trauma that comes with the diagnosis compared to someone who is not.But whatever it is,the support from those around the person is something that is just so very valuable and irreplaceable.That is,as long as the person allows others to come to his/her aid and does not lock himself up alone!

  • brady

    brady

    September 26th, 2012 at 2:48 PM

    The men who are with women when they receive a cancer diagnosis pretty much go through all of these same things too.

    It’s so hard to watch someone that you love brought down by this disease. So while we might not have to endure the numerous physical elements, that does not mean that we are not suffering too.

  • LINDA

    LINDA

    September 26th, 2012 at 11:59 PM

    Just having a friend being diagnosed with cancer years ago was horrible,I have no idea how I would react if it happened to me!

    But I agree that part of the fear stems from the fact that many people are not fully aware of the treatments available and simply assume that they are going to die. But it is a dreaded problem and chances of survival are thin. SO its not unnatural to be obsessively scared or depressed after a diagnosis!

  • Percy T

    Percy T

    September 27th, 2012 at 5:51 AM

    Well irrespective of how big a problem is, or even if it comes to knowing that you have got just a few days or weeks to live, I think it depends on the individual how they take the news and what they do after.There are people who will try and live their life to the fullest if they know they have only a few days left.Then there are those that will sit and lament even if their disorder is curable and treatment gives a good chance of survival.It all comes down to the attitude and love for life, quality, not quantity!

  • Dorie

    Dorie

    September 27th, 2012 at 3:55 PM

    I have lived with a cancer diagnosis for the past four years, and no matter how great the people are around you, you never stop being afraid.
    I hate admitting that I live like this, in fear, but there are days when I wake up feeling so bad that I wonder if this is it, if this is going to be my last day.
    And then I get scared.
    Have I done all of the things that I wanted to do? Have I told everyone that I love just how much they have meant to me?
    the things that do not seem so important when you are healthy become simply magnified in importance when you are living with cancer in your life, and to say just push on, don’t be scared, fight this thing. . . well, that’s just not my reality anymore.

  • sandra

    sandra

    September 28th, 2012 at 1:09 PM

    While I see lots of cancer patients who soldier on and are determined to fight it, I see just as many spouses who kind of just bury their heads in the sand and pretend like this isn’t happening.
    It’s the old I will pretend that this isn’t happening and it will go away!
    Unfortunately life is not like that- I have always thought that the more willing you are to own up and face up to it then the better chance there is to win the fight.

  • Suzette carlisle

    Suzette carlisle

    September 28th, 2012 at 2:16 PM

    Kind of a tall order to expect someone who has been told they have a potentially terminal illness to learn how to automatically begin expressing their frustraitions in a positive way.

  • Mary Ellen

    Mary Ellen

    September 30th, 2012 at 8:10 AM

    Anyone who has ever faced cancer in their lives knows that this is something that has to be dealt with on your own and in a way that you need to process it, and not by some preconceived notions of what you should or should not do. This is true whether you are the one with cancer or if you are the loved one of someone else who is facing this. Look, there is no right or wrong way to process this, simply that you must not bury your feelings. What you are feeling, how you are feeling, no matter HOW you are feeling is valid, it is normal. But you can’t assume that just because the textbooks tell you to do one thing that if you are doing it another that your way is wrong. It isn’t. Listen to your heart, listen to your body, those are the things that you need to pay attention to when this comes into your world.

  • Carrie

    Carrie

    February 10th, 2013 at 10:12 PM

    I was diagnosed with cancer 10 days ago and I can tell you that the fear, denial, anger etc is all too real. How does a seemingly healthy 46 year old woman who has always tried to do the “right thing” wind up with cancer?? I have come to realize that the “C” word does not discriminate and even though it does not run in my family I get to be the lucky one. I have a wonderful family that is standing beside me and even though it is happening to ME; it effects everyone around me; cancer is just that; an “effing” cancer in the whole family. It is an ugly thing that wants to kill you. I will fight it with all I have and yes, I realize there are millions of survivors out there and I hope to be one of them, but I don’t know that for sure right now. Still waiting to see a surgeon and find out the rest of the ugly details of this thing growing inside of me. Life is short and unpredictable and we need to love with our whole selves regardless of how much time we have (no one ever knows). My family, friends and co workers have all stepped up and I am a fighter who is already making cancer jokes about myself. It makes it easier on those around me to feel more comfortable with this disease. Now to see how I might look bald…more to laugh about I guess.

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