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How can I cope with the emotional effects of having cancer?

Posted by Be Well

How can I cope with the emotional effects of having cancer?
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When you are first told you have cancer, it may be difficult to take in. The first emotions that you go through may be shock and confusion. If it is difficult to take in what the doctor is telling you, try to keep asking questions until you feel satisfied that you understand. If necessary, make another appointment for another day and ask the questions again.

Hearing your diagnosis, and facing treatment, can make you feel a wide range of strong emotions. Many people feel a combination of anger, fear and sadness. Over time, these feelings can become easier to deal with, but if that is not the case for you, don't worry - there is help available and there are ways of coping.

Anxiety and panic attacks

Feeling very worried about something, such as having cancer or cancer treatment, can sometimes turn into anxiety and panic attacks. Feelings of anxiety may come and go, or be present all of the time.

Symptoms of anxiety and panic attacks can include:

  • shaking,
  • over-breathing (hyperventilating),
  • breathlessness,
  • palpitations,
  • tense muscles,
  • dizziness,
  • sweating,
  • dry mouth, and
  • chest pain.

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms, speak to your doctor as soon as possible. They will be able to help you control the panic and anxiety. They may refer you to a counselor, as talking therapy can often be an effective treatment.


It can sometimes be hard to work out whether you have depression or are just feeling low. (See the depression health encyclopaedia topic to find out the signs and symptoms of depression.)

If you feel very low for more than a couple of weeks, feel as though you cannot cope, or feel suicidal, always see your doctor as soon as possible.

Your doctor will be able to advise you about the types of help that are available, such as antidepressant medications and counseling.

It can also help to speak to a close friend or family member, or go to a local support group. Your doctor will know of support groups specifically for people with cancer and their caregivers, in your area.

Don't be embarrassed - depression is a serious condition but it can be treated effectively with help from medical professionals.

Sleep problems

Many people with cancer have problems sleeping at some point. This may be due to feeling sick because of the cancer, or the cancer treatment, or because of anxiety or finding it hard to relax. Speak to your doctor, specialist or nurse if you have trouble sleeping. These bedtime tips may also help:

  • Before bed, have a bath with a few drops of lavender oil (lavender-scented pillow spray can also help).
  • Have a warm milky drink before bed.
  • Cut down on caffeine, especially in the evenings.
  • Avoid alcohol - it may make you feel sleepy at first, but it actually disrupts your sleep.
  • Get some regular gentle exercise, if possible.
  • Try to get used to a regular bedtime routine; go to bed at the same time every night.
  • Try a relaxation tape.
  • If you wake up in the night, try not to worry about it. Get up and do something for a while until you feel sleepy again, and then go back to bed. Don't lie in bed tossing and turning; it can make you feel anxious.

If you are resting a lot during the day, and not sleeping at night, it might be worth a change to your routine. If you feel up to it, stay out of bed during the day, but without overdoing it. Perhaps just have one short sleep during the day if you feel you need it.

Talking to someone

Everybody is different, and while some find it easy to be open with a partner, close friend or family member, some find those closest to them the hardest to open up to. This is often due to worry about how those feelings will affect them.

There is no right or wrong way, but for your emotional well-being, it is usually a good idea to express your feelings to at least one person. That person might be your doctor, specialist, nurse, counselor, friend, partner, another person who has cancer, or even your whole support group.

Some people find that it is easier to manage emotions such as anger, frustration and sadness if they learn relaxation techniques, such as visualization, meditation or progressive muscle relaxation. Your cancer nurse will be able to tell you more about these techniques, and also about complementary therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy, massage, homeopathy and reflexology.

There are many health professionals involved in cancer care, such as the Macmillan nurses, who will be happy to help you get through the emotional side of having cancer, as well as the physical side. Counsellors, clinical psychologists, psychiatrists and community psychiatric nurses (CPNs) are specifically trained to help people with conditions such as depression. Your doctor or cancer specialist will be able to talk to you about referring you to the most appropriate health professional, should you need them.


Regular exercise really can help you to feel better because it makes your body produce mood-enhancing chemicals. Speak to your doctor or cancer specialist first though, and don't push yourself beyond what feels comfortable. Even just going for a walk every day, or taking a yoga class, could help you to feel more positive.

Alcohol and drugs

Drinking alcohol can be harmful when combined with certain cancer treatments and antidepressant medications, so you will need to check with your doctor or specialist. If it is safe for you to drink, continuing to socialize can be a positive thing when you are going through cancer treatment, a welcome distraction, and a way of not feeling different from everyone else.

However, remember that too much alcohol can actually cause problems. It can be damaging to relationships, reduce the quality of your sleep making you feel more tired, and have a depressant effect making you feel even more low. So keep alcohol to a minimum.

Recreational drugs can make you feel better short-term, but long-term they may be very damaging to your health, and should be avoided altogether.

Further information:

NOTICE: The information provided on this site is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Never delay or disregard seeking professional medical advice from your physician or other qualified health provider because of something you have read on Wellsphere. If you have a medical emergency, call your doctor or 911 immediately.
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