Like all things in life, each person handles difficult news in their own way. Receiving news that you have cancer and that you need treatment is not easy. While some might experience shock and disbelief, others might feel fear and anxiety. While you are told by your doctor that all these feeling are normal, it takes each person time to adjust to the situation. There are different emotions a person might feel during the following stages:

  • Learning the diagnosis
  • Coping with the changes
  • Sharing news with others
  • Asking for help

Learning the diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis can cause expected emotional distress. While some patients may not believe it and ask, "Are you sure you have the right test results?" others might be in shock as if "This can't be happening to me".

Many people feel they are not able to think clearly and may not understand or remember important information that the doctor gives them about the treatment options. You should have a way to go access this information later. Sometimes it helps to have someone with you at appointments. You could also bring a tape recorder to record the conversation, or make a second appointment to ask the doctor questions and go over the treatment plan.

People may begin to feel hopeful as they receive and understand more information about cancer and their treatment options. Over time, by using ways to cope that have worked in the past for others, people usually adjust to the idea that they have cancer.

Coping with the changes

Different people have different ways in which they cope with changes that cancer has brought/will bring to their lives. While a positive attitude doesn’t guarantee that one will beat cancer, staying hopeful can certainly improve their quality of life as they go through the treatment journey. Staying hopeful and positive can help people find meaning and importance in their lives. It can also help strengthen relationships that are necessary to help a person through the treatment process.

Coping is the use of thoughts and behaviour to adjust to situations. Therefore each person’s coping skills are closely linked to their personality traits. It is however widely considered that irrespective of differences in personalities, people find it easier to adjust to stress when they continue with the normal routines to the best of their abilities. Continuing with work and doing the activities that are important to them helps keep the mind focussed and in turn helps reduce stress caused by the treatment process.

Being physically fit is essential for a healthy lifestyle and more so when one has to undergo a physically and emotionally stressful process like cancer treatment. It might help to continue with any physical exercises you have been doing in the past. Changes might have to be made depending on the side effects of treatment but it is important that you undertake some form of exercise on a regular basis. While some prefer exercises like walking other might prefer yoga. Undertaking some form of meditation could also help supplement exercise. A physically and mentally stronger body is more capable of handling stress than a weak one.

Sharing the news with others

Cancer impacts the entire family, not just the person who has it. While your decision to discuss your diagnosis is a private one, please remember that treatment is a time when you will need all the support you can get from your friends and family. It is therefore important that your near and dear and those involved in your care know of and understand your situation. You may find that in the beginning you only want to tell your spouse and a few friends or family members. Over time you can increase the circle of friends and loved ones you tell about your cancer. Overall, it is usually best to be honest. Keeping cancer a secret can lead to more stress at a time when you need the support of others.

Before you talk to others about your illness, think through your own feelings, your reasons for telling them, and what you expect of them. People react differently to upsetting news, so try to be ready for this. Many times people don’t know what to say, and this makes them feel awkward and uncomfortable. They also may feel sad or be afraid of upsetting you. They may withdraw or distance themselves but not explain that it’s because they feel sad.

Once people have had time to adjust to the news, try to help them understand what’s happening with you. Explain what kind of cancer you have and the treatments you’ll need. Give them a clear and honest picture of what your life is like right now. Tell them that cancer is not a death sentence and they cannot “catch it” from you. Find out what they think and how they feel. Try to answer their questions. Be direct with others and express your needs and feelings openly. It’s usually more stressful to hide emotions than to express them. Sharing can be helpful both to you and to those close to you.

Asking for help

While some people find it easy to ask for help during difficult times, other might find it very hard. If you are used to leading an independent life and have not been dependent on others in the past, this could be a difficult stage for you. Do remember that going through cancer treatment could be one of the toughest challenges your body and mind might face. You need all the help you can get. Do not hesitate to reach out to people you trust and know who will help you. Initially your friends and family may not understand the extent to which you might want them involved with your treatment process. So be open and have a heartfelt conversation regarding your expectations and needs. There is no harm in asking!