Dealing with cancer emotionally

You might experience all kinds of emotions after being diagnosed with cancer, as well as during and after treatment. 

  • You might feel a range of emotions that change over time and sometimes you might not even be sure what you’re feeling or why  

  • It’s important to remember that there’s no right or wrong way to feel.  

  • Everyone’s cancer experience is different, and everyone’s cancer experience is equally valid 

  •  There are things you can try that might help you feel able to cope, as well as people to talk to and ways to manage certain feelings.  

How will I feel when I find out I have cancer?

It can be tricky to let other people know how you’re feeling, especially if you usually like keeping things to yourself. You might prefer to ignore your emotions and hope they’ll go away. 

Unfortunately, keeping feelings bottled up can sometimes make things worse. It can make you act differently too. So as hard as it can be, finding a way to express what you’re going through is an important part of dealing with it. 

If you struggle to talk about your emotions, it can help to write them down or even to talk to yourself about them. Remember, you can use the notes section at the back of this guide to write down anything you want. 

You might be feeling: 

  • Shocked - Even if you suspected something was wrong, hearing a doctor mention cancer for the first time can be a real shock. You might have struggled to focus or not really have heard what the doctor was saying. You might have cried or felt exhausted. These are all very common reactions to shock.  

  • Scared - There’s no shame in feeling afraid. Talking to someone and telling them you’re afraid can feel like a massive weight off your chest. If you’re worried about anything, it often helps to try and find reliable information about what you’re going through so you understand what to expect. We’ve got lots of information about diagnosis and cancer on this website and you can ask your care team for any printed information they might have, like our book ‘Your Guide to Cancer’ which you can find out more about here.  

  • Uncertain - Not knowing what’s going to happen is one of the toughest things about cancer. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed, but it can help to focus on the things you can control, like looking after yourself and eating well 

  • Sad - There are lots of reasons you might feel sad when you have cancer. Changes to your body, losing your hair, changes to your health, lifestyle and relationships can all affect your mood. It can help to think about what usually makes you feel better – like calling your friends or listening to music – so you can do those things if you start to feel low. And remember that sadness usually comes and goes. If it feels constant and overwhelming this could be a sign of depression. Depression can be treated, so it’s important to ask for support.  

  • Frustrated - You might feel like you’ve lost your independence, which can be particularly annoying if you’re used to doing things for yourself. Having to take advice all the time can be tough too. It can be a good idea to let people know if you need some space or don’t need help – chances are they might not realise. And you’ll probably feel better for letting your feelings out too. 

  • Guilty - It doesn’t make any sense, because you’ve not done anything to cause cancer, but the truth is that people feel guilt for all sorts of reasons after a cancer diagnosis. It’s easy to get caught up in thoughts and feelings of guilt, but try to remember – this isn’t your fault. And don’t be surprised if people in your family feel guilty too – that’s also not unusual. You might even find that knowing you feel the same way actually helps. Acknowledging guilt can be the first step in letting it go. 

  • Embarrassed - It’s not easy dealing with some of the changes cancer and cancer treatment can cause. You might feel embarrassed if your body changes or if you can’t do things you used to do. You might feel like people are staring at you, or you might not know how to answer questions about your cancer. Have a think about what you’re happy to tell people. People usually ask questions either because they’re genuinely interested or because they’re feeling embarrassed themselves. You could even use the notes section at the back of this guide to write down some answers to questions you think you might get, so you’re prepared to answer them. 

  • Jealous - It can be tough seeing your siblings, partner and friends going out and doing the stuff you’d love to be doing. If you are feeling jealous, try and talk it through with them. It can help to let them know you’d like it if they still invited you – and that you’ll be there whenever you feel well enough. 

  • Lonely - Being surrounded by people doesn’t mean you can’t feel lonely and there might be times when you feel like no one understands what you’re going through. If you are feeling lonely it can really help to talk to other young people who have had cancer. Everyone is different, but you’ll probably have plenty of experiences in common. Remember that you can always speak to a member of your care team, they might be able to put you in touch with some other young people in a similar situation. 

  • Angry – cancer isn’t fair. And it’s totally natural to feel angry because of that. The fact that it’s not your fault probably won’t make you feel any better either. It’s important to try and find things that soothe you and calm you down, instead of bottling it up. It’s not unusual to feel seriously fed up when you have cancer.  

Here are some tips on more helpful ways to deal with anger: 

Exercising - If you’re feeling physically OK, a jog, walk, swim or bike ride can really clear your mind and help you work through your anger 

Writing down what you’re feeling - This isn’t for anyone else but you, so don’t worry about how you’re writing it. Getting everything out and down on paper can help clear your mind 

Having a good cry - All of these ideas basically come down to releasing what’s inside. If you feel like crying, don’t hold back – let it all out 

Talking to people - Being honest about your emotions can help your anger 

Learning self-help techniques - Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT) can really help you to deal with difficult emotions, like anger 

It's OK not to feel OK

There’s a good chance people will tell you how important it is to stay positive. It’s one of those bits of advice that people say because they care but which don’t always help. 

So while it is worth trying to stay optimistic if you feel able to, don’t worry if you feel miserable sometimes. It’s natural to have good days and bad days. 

Cancer is tough on the mind as well as the body. No one expects you to wake up with a smile on your face every day. In fact, having a good cry and a moan can sometimes leave you feeling a lot better.  

 Everyone reacts differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to respond to a cancer diagnosis or treatment. Whatever you’re feeling is  100% OK and valid.  

So if you’re finding it difficult, don’t give yourself a hard time – it’s OK to get upset. You might be used to putting on a brave face, but that’s not always the best way to deal with something hard.  

Talking about how you feel

There is lots of support available to help you cope and you’ll meet plenty of people whose job it is to help you get through this. 

And while you might not enjoy talking about your feelings, it can actually be a pretty powerful way of helping. Because cancer changes a lot of things. It can even change your closest relationships. And talking about whatever you’re going through can help you and the people around you feel a whole lot better. 

Pretending you’re OK can be exhausting and can stop you opening up to people, which can actually help you feel a lot better. 

So if you’re feeling down, try to be honest about it. Everyone struggles with this. It’s never easy. And no one will think any less of you if you admit you’re having a tough day. 

Coping strategies for when dealing with cancer emotionally

A coping strategy is basically anything you do to make yourself feel less stressed, worried, anxious, or whatever it is that’s going on for you. And because cancer can be pretty stressful, it’s a good idea to have plenty of coping strategies in place.   

Some ideas for coping strategies include:  

Learning about cancer   

Some people feel better knowing everything they can about their diagnosis because then they know what to expect. 

Others would rather take it step by step. Whichever you are is totally fine and completely your choice.  

If you want more information you can use this website and ask your care team if they can get you some copies of our printed information booklets too. They might also be able to point you in the right direction for other useful information resources.  

Asking questions 

If you’re not sure about anything, ask you care team for an explanation. It’s important you understand what’s going on so don’t worry about how many questions you’re asking, they’ll understand.  

Talking about how you’re feeling 

From a good rant to a good cry, speaking to people can help you to process what’s going on. 

Have some control  

There are lots of parts of having a cancer diagnosis that are out of your control. Getting involved in decisions about our treatment – from when you want to be woken up to what you want to eat – can help you feel more in control  

Doing the things you used to do 

It’s easy to forget about seeing friends or watching films or doing whatever you love – but the normal, everyday stuff is really important. This doesn’t mean making big plans but just making sure you give yourself some time to enjoy your favourite things if you’re able to.  

Getting creative 

Write a blog, buy some paints, take a few photos, mess around with a guitar – whatever puts a smile on your face. 

Getting organised 

Set goals and have a weekly to-do list – just don’t take on too much at once. 


A few laps of the pool or park or an online yoga session can help your day seem brighter, and even doing a few stretches in bed can help. Don’t worry if you sometimes don’t feel up to exercise, though. 


Pampering yourself on the outside can make you feel better on the inside. 

Trying something new 

Learn an instrument. Try a new sport. Give meditation a go. If you’ve got more free time and you’re feeling OK, why not make the most of it? 

Getting a good nights’ sleep  

Sleeping well is a big part of feeling well. Try to get a good amount of sleep as and when you can.  

Having a routine 

Getting up, going to bed and eating at the same time each day can help your life feel less out-of-sync. 

Accepting help   

It can be annoying when people constantly want to help, but it can also make your life easier. Why not think of things you can suggest when people ask, like doing the laundry or picking up your favourite magazine? 

Treating yourself 

It’s really important to cut yourself some slack and be kind to yourself. We’re talking chocolate, a curry, getting your nails done, a massage (check with your doctor or nurse before getting any treatments), the cinema, a game of FIFA – whatever makes you smile 

Join a support group  

Talking to young people who know what it’s like to deal with cancer treatment can help you feel less alone 

Who to talk to about how you’re feeling

Finding the right person to open up to can make a real difference.   

Try to think about people you know who are good listeners, who won’t judge you, who’ll keep things private and who’ll be honest with you. Someone who usually makes you smile when you’re feeling down is a good person to have around too.  

Remember you only have to talk about things when you want to and you don’t have to tell anyone anything about your cancer that you don’t want to.  

You could try speaking to : 

Your parents or carers 

If you have a close relationship you might decide they’re the best people to help you deal with your feelings. If you’re worried about them overwhelming you with help, try to be clear when you need their support and when you’d rather be by yourself. 

Your siblings 

If you’ve got siblings, you might feel most comfortable chatting to them, and they might help your parents see what you’re going through, too. 

Other relatives 

It can help to talk to aunts, uncles, cousins or grandparents – family members who might not live with you but will have plenty of love and support to give you. 

Your doctor, nurse or Youth Support Coordinator 

They’re not only there to talk about physical problems – they can help with the emotional stuff too. 


Sitting down and talking through your fears and frustrations with friends can help you deal with your emotions and help you feel more like yourself, too. 


It might be that you decided your partner, if you have one, is the best person to talk through your feelings with. They might be able to give you the perfect shoulder to cry on or person to laugh with, depending on what kind of day you’re having.   


If you get on well with one of your teachers, don’t be afraid to contact them to ask for a chat.  

Support groups 

You might want to talk to people who have been through cancer too. Your doctors and nurses can let you know about groups near you or online. 

Religious and community leaders 

If you’re a member of a religious group, a youth group, or a community, you could chat to one of the leaders there if you know and trust them. 

Counsellors and psychologists 

During and after treatment you’ll be able to talk to professionals who are trained to help you deal with fear, anger and whatever else you’re feeling. You can talk to them about anything and they’re not emotionally connected to what’s happening to you like people you know are, so it’s a good way to be 100% honest. And there’s no need to feel shame for getting professional support. Your mental health is just as important as your physical health. 

What to do if you’re struggling to cope

Dealing with cancer isn’t easy, and sometimes you might need support to get through it. So it’s important to know the signs of depression, and to talk to someone if you think you might be feeling the signs of depression that we’ve listed below.  

Your mood 

You might feel sad, helpless or moody most of the time. You might struggle to concentrate and feel like there’s nothing to look forward to. And you might stop enjoying the things that usually make you happy. Some people describe it as feeling like the colour has gone from things. 

Your behaviour 

Crying a lot is a common sign of depression, and so is feeling like you can’t be bothered to do anything. You might start to lack confidence in yourself, too, and become quiet and withdrawn. And you might feel like doing things you know aren’t good for you, like smoking, taking drugs, getting drunk or harming yourself  

But it’s important to remember that if you’re not crying all the time, it doesn’t mean you’re not suffering with depression – people experience it very differently.  

Your body 

You might eat or sleep more than usual, or not eat and sleep enough. And you might start getting headaches or feel sick a lot of the time.  

Dealing with depression 
These can be some of the signs of depression, so if you have any of these symptoms for more than a couple of weeks, have a chat with your parents, doctors or clinical nurse specialist about how you’re feeling.  

If you are feeling depressed, your doctor can recommend various treatments that might help. A lot of them involve talking – to clinical psychologists, to counsellors and to other people in support groups. Medicine is sometimes used too. 

It’s important not to keep depression to yourself, and there’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of. Asking for help with a mental health problem is no different to asking for help for a physical one.  

There are also various things you can do to help yourself. If you feel up to it, exercise can lift your mood. It releases endorphins (chemicals that can make you feel positive) and can leave you with a real sense of achievement: just make sure you set yourself small, realistic goals. 

Staying in touch with people close to you can help too. And so can making a conscious effort to break the cycle of negative feelings. 

The charity Mind has more information about the signs of depression and how it can be treated.   

If your depression is severe, you could find yourself experiencing suicidal thoughts. If that happens to you, it’s vital to get help. Tell a member of your treatment team as soon as possible, and if you’re ever concerned for your safety, go to A&E or call 999. 

You can get in touch with the Samaritans for help 24 hours a day, every day on 116 123.  

Young person Hannah, after cancer treatment

Read story (How I got through cancer treatment)
Jake Adams

Read story (Friends were essential to my sanity)