Dealing with cancer emotionally

Cancer is tough to face. So it’s OK to not feel OK. Find out more about how you might be feeling, who you can talk to and where you can get more support.

  • It’s OK to not feel OK when you’re facing cancer.  
  • You might feel a range of emotions that change over time, and that’s OK too. 
  • But you’re not alone. There are people there to support you in dealing with cancer emotionally.  
  • 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. 
  • And there should be professional support available if you need it. 

So you know that phrase ‘emotional rollercoaster’? That could have been invented to describe what it’s like to have cancer. This section is here to help you deal with some of the emotional stuff - how you feel, how to talk about it, and how to manage your relationships with others. 

It’s OK to not feel OK when dealing with cancer emotionally

Cancer is tough on the mind as well as the body. But everyone reacts differently, and there’s no right or wrong way to respond to a cancer diagnosis or treatment. Whatever you’re feeling is absolutely, completely 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. 

You're not alone when dealing with cancer emotionally

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.

Hiral at a Teenage Cancer Trust unit

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Jake Adams

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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 what’s going on for them. So maybe have a think: do you like to know exactly what to expect or find out as you go along?

Asking questions

If you’re not sure about anything, ask for an explanation.

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.

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.

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.

Exercising

A few laps of the 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.

Having a makeover

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

Trying something new

Learn an instrument. Figure out how to do sudoku. Try a new sport. Give meditation a go. If you’ve got more free time and you’re feeling OK, why not spend it doing something you’ve always fancied?

Getting your eight hours

Sleeping well is a big part of feeling well. Our section on healthy living with cancer can help if you’re struggling.

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 feel overwhelming when people constantly want to help, or like you’re admitting defeat if you accept it. But we all need help sometimes, especially when it comes to something really hard like cancer.

Treating yourself

It’s really important to be kind to yourself when life is hard. Chocolate, a curry, getting your nails done, a massage, the cinema, a game of FIFA – whatever makes you smile, basically.
 

Who to talk to about how you’re feeling when dealing with cancer emotionally

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

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. 

You could try:

Your parents or carers

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 them, you might feel most comfortable chatting to brothers and sisters, 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 – people 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.

Friends

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.

Partners

Boyfriends and girlfriends can give you the perfect shoulder to cry on or person to laugh with, depending on what kind of day you’re having.  
Teachers. If you get on well with one of your teachers, don’t be afraid to contact them to ask for a chat – teachers tend to be pretty good listeners.

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 can always 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.

How to manage feeling angry

It’s not unusual to feel seriously fed up when you have cancer. But there are unhelpful ways of dealing with anger like taking it out on other people, or distancing yourself from family and friends, hurting yourself, or taking drugs and drinking.  

And there are more helpful ways to deal with it. For instance:

Taking some deep breaths

Concentrate on nothing but your breathing for a couple of minutes. Deep breaths in. Deep breaths out. It actually works.

Shouting

As loud as you can. And then shouting even louder. Screaming at the top of your lungs can be an amazing release, so find somewhere private and let rip. Try not to shout at other people.

Punching your pillow

It’s a good way to get aggression out without causing any damage.

Exercising

A run, walk, swim or bike ride can really clear your mind.

Writing down what you’re feeling

It’s not a test and no one else has to read it – so don’t edit, just vent.

Turning up your music

Metal. Hip-hop. Bieber. Whatever makes you feel better.

Talking to people

Being honest about your emotions can help your anger fade away. 

What to do if you’re struggling to cope when dealing with cancer emotionally

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 depression might be coming into your life. 

Depression can change: 

Your mood

You might feel sad or moody most of the time or struggle to concentrate. You might 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. 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. 
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. 

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. 

The charity Mind has more information about the signs of depression and how it can be treated.  
 
If depression is really bad, you could find yourself experiencing suicidal thoughts. If that’s how you’re feeling, it’s really important to get help right away. Tell someone you trust like a parent, friend or 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..