13 JULY 2017

Managing Difficult Emotions After a Cancer Diagnosis

Help! I have cancer

Understanding what you feel and what to expect can help you manage difficult emotions better. Learn to recognise your feelings and how to deal with them. One of the biggest shocks you can get in a doctor’s clinic is to be told you have cancer. You may be overwhelmed by fear, worry, grief, or many other emotions that you find hard to even describe or understand. Don’t be discouraged if you experience these feelings; they are natural. It is, therefore, important not to brush these emotions aside or to suppress them. They are part of your journey with cancer, and if you can learn to understand and manage them, it can help you cope more effectively and positively with the treatment on a day-to-day basis. Here are some of the feelings you may experience, and how you can manage them:


It is common for some people to even refuse to believe the diagnosis. Denial is a natural defence mechanism that helps us cope with a piece of news that is too hard to handle; a short period of denial can be healthy. However, if denial is prolonged, it can prevent you from getting the treatment you need or taking the necessary action to deal with your illness. Your feelings of denial and initial shock will usually fade when you start treatment. Putting out a welcome mat for your situation will allow you to move forward and focus on your journey ahead.


The news of a cancer diagnosis inevitably evokes fear, as it is a life-threatening disease. It is natural to feel frightened when you are diagnosed with cancer, especially when you are going to undergo treatment for the first time and do not know what to expect. Prolonged fear, however, can be debilitating. Acknowledging the fear will help you keep it under control and put you in a better position to manage your disease.

What you can do:

  • Learn the facts about the cancer and understand your treatment plan from your doctors or nurses.
  • Trust your doctors and nurses and build rapport with them. This will give you confidence and assurance that you are in good hands.
  • Find out how you can address sources of physical discomfort.
  • Process your fears with a counsellor or psychotherapist.
  • Seek support from your caregivers.


In your journey through cancer, you may feel angry with your situation, yourself, your loved ones, caregivers, friends or healthcare providers. You may also feel angry with God. This is natural; our anger stems from feelings that we may find hard to express, such as anxiety, fear, frustration, helplessness or hopelessness. Anger can be healthy and even helpful, as it may motivate you to take action. However, it needs to be processed so that it will be channelled in the right way.

What you can do:

  • Don’t pretend that everything is fine.
  • Be honest about your feelings, and talk to your family and friends about your anger and resentment.
  • Talk to other cancer survivors; you can meet them through support groups.
  • Practise relaxation techniques and light exercises such as walking, yoga or qigong.
  • If you notice yourself harbouring anger for a prolonged period, ask your doctor to refer you to a counsellor.

Stress and anxiety

Major changes in life and uncertainties – both of which are inevitable in a cancer journey – typically cause stress and anxiety. If you are experiencing emotional and physiological effects such as those listed below, you are likely to be suffering from stress and anxiety.
  • Difficulties in concentrating
  • Heart palpitations
  • Hyper-sensitivity
  • Headaches
  • Body aches
  • Weight fluctuations
  • Drastic changes in appetite and sleep patterns

What you can do:

  • If you have noticed any of the common signs of stress listed above, let your doctor know so that he/she can determine whether they are signs of stress, or side effects of your treatment.
  • Explore ways to keep your stress under control. You may find useful information online or at classes on stress management.
  • Finding acceptance towards the disease helps. Acceptance is not passive resignation but active recognition of your situation which can help you to move forward.
  • Talk to a family member, trusted friend, counsellor, or other cancer survivors.

Sadness and depression

After being diagnosed with cancer, you may find yourself grieving for the loss of your health or the life you had before. You may feel guilty or blame yourself for not doing more to avoid the disease, and be consumed by self-pity for your predicament. This sadness can go on until you complete your treatment, or even after, especially if the cancer has caused major changes in your life. While this is again natural, you need to process these feelings if they persist or grow in intensity, making it difficult for you to proceed with your daily life and routine. If you find yourself losing interest in activities that you used to enjoy, or isolating yourself from your family and friends for more than two weeks, be mindful: you could be falling into depression. Clinical depression occurs in about one out of every four cancer patients. If you have five or more of the following symptoms almost every day, for more than two weeks, seek help.
  • Persistent sadness or emptiness
  • Restlessness or feeling agitated
  • Frequent thoughts of death or suicide
  • Feelings of worthlessness or excessive guilt
  • Having trouble thinking and making decisions
  • Loss of interest in all or almost all activities
  • Fatigue and lacking in energy
  • Difficulty concentrating
  • Changes in appetite, or unintentional weight loss or gain
  • Difficulty sleeping or sleeping excessively

What you can do:

  • Take your time to discover the best ways for you to release your sadness. Different people cope with it differently. Seek help from a professional if you need to.
  • Keep a mood diary. Journal your feelings throughout the day, be aware of how and what you are feeling.
  • Surround yourself with supportive friends and family members.
  • Empower yourself with knowledge on positive psychology. Learn how to replace negative thoughts with positive ones.
Written by Kok Bee Eng Source: Based on a talk given by Parkway Cancer Centre’s counsellor, Dominica Chua.
POSTED IN Psychological Health
TAGS cancer diagnosis, cancer positive thinking, managing emotions, stress and cancer