If you have recently been told that you have cancer and are looking for some support or guidance as to how you feel, it is important for you to understand you are not alone, we and many others are here to support you.
Most people feel overwhelmed when they are told that they have cancer. Even though the chance of successfully treating cancer in general is high, you may still have many different emotions, a feeling of confusion and frequent mood swings. You might not have all the feelings discussed below or experience them in the same order as they are listed, but we hope reading this information will help you understand that your response and our emotions what ever they may be are completely normal and you should not worry.
These emotions are part of the process that many people go through in trying to come to terms with their illness. Partners, family members and friends often have similar feelings and may need as much support and guidance in coping with their feelings as you do.
Reactions differ from one person to another – there is no right or wrong way to feel. Some of the common emotional effects are mentioned below. However, reactions vary and people have different emotions at different times.
Shock and disbelief
“I can’t believe it/it can’t be true”
This is often the immediate reaction when cancer is diagnosed. You may feel numb and unable to believe what is happening or to express any emotion. You may find that you can take in only a small amount of information from the doctors explaining, so you keep asking the same question again and again, or you need to be told the same bits of information repeatedly. This need for repetition is a common reaction to shock.
Some people may find that their feelings of disbelief make it difficult for them to talk about their illness with the family and friends. Other people may feel an overwhelming urge to discuss it with those around them.
Fear and uncertainty
Am I going to die?/Will I be in pain?
Cancer is a frightening word surrounded by fears and myths. One of the greatest fears people have when they are diagnosed is that they are going to die. In fact, many cancers are curable if caught at an early enough stage. When a cancer is not completely curable, modern treatments often mean that it can be controlled for years and many patients can live an almost normal life.
Will I be in pain? This is a common fear after a cancer diagnosis. In fact, some people with cancer have no day to day pain at all. If you do have pain, there are many modern drugs and other techniques which are successful at relieving it or keeping it under control.
Many people are anxious about their treatment: whether or not it will work and how to cope with possible side effects. It is best to discuss your individual treatment and possible outcomes in detail with your doctor.
Some people are afraid of the hospital itself. It can be a frightening place, especially if you have never been in one before, but talking about your fears to a doctor or nurse can really help. They should be able to reassure you.
You may find that the doctors are unable to fully reassure you of your future even after you have been diagnosed, or that estimates for your treatment success may be a little vaguer than you had hoped. For example, it is often impossible for doctors to say for certain that once they have completely removed a tumour, if it will regrow. Doctors know approximately how many people will benefit from a certain treatment, but cannot predict the future of a particular person. This is especially true if you are on a newer course of treatment only recently available. Many people find this uncertainty difficult to live with.
Uncertainty about the future can cause a lot of tension, but fears may be worse than the reality. Gaining some knowledge about your illness can be reassuring. Discussing what you have found out with your family and friends can help to relieve some of the worry.
‘There’s nothing really wrong with me’/’I haven’t got cancer’
Many people cope with their illness by not wanting to know anything about it, or not wanting to talk about it. if that’s the way you feel, then just say quite firmly to the people around you that you would prefer not to talk to about your illness, at least for the time being.
Sometimes, however, it is the other way round. You may find that it is your family and friends who are denying your illness. They may appear to ignore the fact that you have cancer, perhaps by playing down your anxieties and symptoms or deliberately changing the subject. If this upsets or hurts you because you want them to support you by sharing what you feel, try telling them. Start perhaps by reassuring them that you do know what is happening and that it will help you if you can talk to them about your illness.
‘Why me’/’Why now’
Anger can hide other feelings, such as fear or sadness. You may direct your anger at the people who are closest to you and at the doctors and nurses who are caring for you.
It is understandable that you may be deeply upset by many aspects of your illness, whilst you feel this why it is important to remember there is no need to feel guilty about your anger. The anger you are feeling is really directed at your illness and not against the people around you. If you can, it might be helpful to explain this to your loved ones and those caring for you, at a time when you are not feeling quite so angry. If you would find that difficult, you could suggest they read this section for themselves.
Blame and Guilt
‘If I hadn’t…this would never have happened’
Sometimes people blame themselves or other people for their illness, trying to find reasons to explain why it should have happened to them. This may be because we often feel better if we know why something has happened. However, since in most cases it is impossible to know exactly what has caused a person’s cancer there is no reason for you to feel that you are to blame.
‘It’s all right for you – you haven’t got to put up with this’
Understandably, you may be feeling resentful and miserable because you have cancer while other people are well. Similar feelings of resentment may crop up from time to time during the course of your illness and treatment for a variety of reasons. Relatives too can sometimes resent the changes your illness makes to their lives, but this is not personal, they are simply worried and concerned for you and want to help.
It is usually helpful to bring these feelings out in the open so that they can be discussed. Kepping your resentment to yourself can make everyone feel angry and guilty.
Withdrawl and Isolation
‘Please leave me alone’
There may be times during your illness when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This can be hard for your family and friends who want to share this difficult time with you. It will make it easier for them to cope, however, if you reassure them that although you may not feel like discussing your illness at the moment, you will talk to them about it when you are ready.
Sometimes depression can stop you wanting to talk. If you or your family think you may be depressed, discuss this with your GP. They can perscribe antidepressant drugs for you, or refer you to a doctor or counsellor who specialises in the emotional problems of people with cancer.
If you are a relative or friend
Some families find it difficult to talk about cancer or share their feelings. You might think it is best to pretend that everything is fine, and carry on as normal. You might not want to worry the person with cancer or feel you are letting them down if you admit to being afraid. Unfortunately, denying strong emotions like this can make it even harder to talk, and may lead to the person with cancer feeling very isolated.
Partners, relatives and friends can help by listening carefully to what and how much the person with cancer wants to say. Don’t rush into talking about the illness. Often it is enough just to listen and let the person with cancer talk when they are ready.
For now, take time to think about yourself and your feelings. If there are questions you want your doctor to answer, know that you can go back and ask them. Ask your doctor to talk through all your treatment options and how they work, then talk to the people you love to decide what is the best course of treatment for you.
Your feelings if you have advanced cancer.
If your cancer is very advanced and you are facing the possibility of dying, all these feelings are likely to be more intense. They will take on a different meaning for you.
We suggest you ask for help from those around you, this does not make you weak but will instead be more likely to help you. Doctors and nurses working in cancer care are very aware of the range of reactions people can have to cancer. There may also be counsellors or psychologists in the cancer team at your treatment centre who can help you through the difficult and emotional times after your diagnosis and during treatment. It is also worth finding out what is available at your local hospice. Many hospices offer all sorts of help to people with advanced cancer. This can include complementary therapies such as reflexology and massage, to counselling and respite stays to give you and your family a break.