Common reactions

“The doctor's lips were moving, but I couldn't hear any sound coming out.” Andy

“When I was diagnosed I felt totally shocked. I couldn’t remember much after I heard the word ‘cancer’. I was so pleased I had my partner there to write down what was said.” Mayuri

“I kept bursting into tears at the supermarket.” Debbie

“Don’t be too tough on yourself. Set realistic expectations. Try not to worry too much.” Liz

Common reactions

  • Shock: You may feel shocked when you are told you have cancer. It is often difficult to take in the diagnosis immediately – you might hear the words but not believe them. There are many reasons for shock: cancer is a serious disease, and most people feel afraid and unsure about treatment, side effects and the likely impact on family/whānau and work.
  • Fear, anxiety and panic: It’s normal to feel frightened or anxious at times when you have cancer. You might worry about what will happen to you. Fear and anxiety can have physical effects on you. They are a bit like being very nervous before an exam or a job interview. You may have feelings of being hot or cold, butterflies in your stomach, and/or heart pounding. For some people it can be so bad that they have panic attacks. These are very different to being worried. A panic attack can happen suddenly for no apparent reason. You may find it hard to breathe, or feel dizzy or faint. Panic attacks feel awful but they are generally not dangerous to your health. A panic attack may only happen once and have no lasting effect, but frequent attacks can begin to affect your quality of life. If this happens, talk to a medical professional. Most people feel better when they know what to expect. Learning about cancer and its treatment may help you cope. Source: CancerHelp UK
  • Anger and resentment: Why should this have happened to you and not someone else? You may feel resentful of the good health of others. You may feel angry with family/whānau, friends, doctors, nurses, or even your God (if you are religious). These are natural reactions to the changes that cancer has caused to your life plans.
  • Denial: You may have trouble believing or accepting that you have cancer. Sometimes denial allows people time to adjust to their diagnosis. But denial becomes a problem if it stops you from seeking information and treatment.
  • Sadness: After being diagnosed with cancer it’s normal to feel sadness. It may be there all the time or it may come and go, depending on what’s going on in your life. You may feel sad that you’ve lost your good health and ability to do things that you enjoy. It may be the uncertainty of the future that upsets you most. People often say they’re depressed when they’re feeling sad. Sadness is different to depression. Depression can be medically treated but sadness will take its own natural course. Sadness is part of healing. It allows you to emotionally process any loss, grief, change or disappointment and then move on.
  • Depression: is a much more intense feeling than sadness. Depression is harder to manage and can affect your ability to cope with everyday things, such as eating, sleeping, hygiene, social activities and work. It is important to remember that being depressed does not mean you are weak. Depression needs treating. It is a medical illness, just like a broken leg or a heart condition. Depression that requires treatment is sometimes called clinical depression. It is not a condition that you can shake off. If you are depressed, it is impossible to simply ‘pull yourself together’. You may need medication, counselling or both. Tackling depression early may mean that you can deal with problems quickly and avoid symptoms becoming worse. Talk to a medical professional if you are concerned.
  • Guilt: It is common to look for a cause of cancer. Some people blame themselves, but no one is to blame. Learning more about cancer and how it develops may help. For most cancers there is no one cause and for many the cause is unknown.
  • A sense of loneliness: When you hear you have cancer or if you are too sick to enjoy your usual activities, you might feel lonely and isolated. It’s natural to feel that others do not understand what you’re going through.
  • Uncertainty (loss of control): Cancer can lead to uncertainty in many areas of your life, and this may cause many emotions. Cancer can take away your sense of security and control. Learning more about the cancer, its treatment, and looking after yourself, can help give you back some feeling of control. Also, remembering what you are still in control of can be helpful.
  • Fatigue: Fatigue is often confused with tiredness. Tiredness happens to everyone after certain activities or at the end of the day. Usually you know why you are tired and a good night’s sleep solves the problem. Fatigue is a daily lack of energy, unusual or excessive whole body tiredness, not helped by sleep. Fatigue can prevent you from functioning properly and can impact on your quality of life. Fatigue is a common side effect of cancer and its treatments. Ways to manage fatigue could include pacing yourself, learning relaxation techniques such as deep breathing and visualisation. A balanced diet and regular exercise can decrease feelings of tiredness and lack of energy.
  • Avoidance and withdrawal: There may be times when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This is a very normal reaction for some people. However, if you find that you’d rather be left on your own for most of the time, and often avoid talking to people, this may be a sign that you are depressed.
  • Effects on your self-esteem: A cancer diagnosis can make you feel very vulnerable. You may feel as though you have lost your independence and no longer have control over your life. It may also seem as though things you used to do and find easy are now much more difficult. This might cause you to lose some confidence. Give yourself some time to rebuild your confidence and self-esteem.

Source: Macmillan CancerSupport

If you are having trouble dealing with any of your emotions, consider talking to family/whānau and friends, seeking professional help or joining a support group.

Not everyone feels overwhelmed. Some people feel empowered when they take control of what is happening.


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