Coping With A Cancer Diagnosis

Posted on September 23, 2022 in Cancer

Written by Stratton, Elizabeth

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In the wake of a cancer diagnosis, you may experience unprecedented feelings like intense frustration or overwhelming sadness. Your emotions may even shift wildly from moment to moment, leaving both you and others confused.

Though uncomfortable, these feelings are completely normal, says Dr. Erin K. Taylor. “Emotions,” she says, “are simply part of the human experience.”

Dr. Taylor is a Clinical Health Psychologist with Sapphire Health Psychology in Charlotte. As a mental health professional, she often works with patients who are processing recent medical diagnoses, cancer included.

In this blog, we partner with Dr. Taylor to discuss some common emotions experienced by oncology patients and tips for coping with them.

Fear and Stress

Many patients feel terrified after receiving a cancer diagnosis, and understandably so. Cancer is a scary disease. You may be worried about:

  • Experiencing pain, either from the cancer or the treatment
  • Looking after your children
  • Supporting your spouse
  • Maintaining your job
  • Paying for medical expenses 

How to Cope With Fear and Stress

Uncertainty is the mother of fear. Typically, when we feel scared it’s because we don’t know what the future holds. Who will take care of your kids when you can’t? Will you be able to afford rent and medication? How will you juggle radiation therapy and work?

To answer your questions, join a support group. As Dr. Taylor explains, “joining a support group helps people feel less alone.” 

A support group is also a place where you can “gain practical tips on coping with cancer,” says Dr. Taylor. During meetings, take note of how other people have balanced day-to-day responsibilities with treatment, doctor visits, and other stressors. This will help you understand how to live a normal life with cancer. 

As time goes on, the new friendships kindled in a support group can provide invaluable comfort. However, if feelings of fear and stress persist, a licensed mental health professional can help you process your emotions. Most cancer centers have access to mental health support, so feel free to ask your doctor or treatment team.


Whereas fear and stress are short-term reactions to an immediate threat, anxiety is persistent and generalized, says Dr. Taylor. “Think of Linus from the Peanuts,” she notes. “He’s always worried about seemingly everything.”

As such, anxiety may crop up at any time, even if you feel calm and relaxed. You may, for example, experience a panic attack while grabbing dinner with friends. 

Other signs of anxiety include:

  • Faster heartbeat
  • Faster breathing
  • A feeling of unease or dread
  • Sweating
  • Diarrhea or constipation
  • Nervousness
  • Tenseness
  • Restlessness
  • Insomnia   

How To Cope With Anxiety

Anxiety often makes people feel like they are spinning out of control. You may be unable to sleep since you spend all night worrying about upcoming treatment sessions. Or, you may be too distracted by your diagnosis to work. 

Though relaxation techniques like meditation and deep breathing are beneficial, you should also seek the support of a counselor. A licensed mental health professional can help you process your anxiety, allowing you to develop healthier coping mechanisms and understand how to “more accurately respond to perceived threats,” says Dr. Taylor. 


Sadness is expected when you are diagnosed with cancer. Many patients mourn the lives they once had – lives free of sickness and pain. 

Though these negative emotions are normal, especially considering the gravity of a cancer diagnosis, persistent feelings of helplessness and hopelessness may be indicative of depression.

“Whereas sadness is specific to a situation or event, depression significantly interferes with functioning over a longer period of time,” says Dr. Taylor. 

Emotional signs of depression include:

  • Feelings of sadness that won’t go away
  • Feelings of guilt or unworthiness
  • Feeling short-tempered or moody
  • An inability to concentrate
  • Crying for long periods, multiple times per day
  • No interest in hobbies or activities you once enjoyed
  • Difficulty enjoying time with friends and family
  • Reliance on substances like alcohol and drugs
  • Suicidal thoughts 


Physical signs of depression include:

  • Weight loss or gain unrelated to treatment or illness
  • Insomnia or hypersomnia (sleeping too much)
  • Racing heart, dry mouth, diarrhea
  • Persistent fatigue
  • Unexplained aches and pains

How To Cope With Depression

People typically need medical treatment to address depression. According to Dr. Taylor, this treatment may involve some combination of counseling and medication. 

“Therapy is very helpful,” she says. “But sometimes, medications are necessary to take the edge off, making it easier for people to put their coping strategies in place.” 

A licensed mental health professional can help you process your depression. Most cancer centers have access to mental health support, so feel free to ask your doctor or treatment team.


When some patients first receive a diagnosis, they feel absolutely nothing. This reaction may seem unusual; however, it’s indicative of emotional shock. 

Emotional shock can cause dissociation, which Dr. Taylor describes as a “common response to stressful events” and a way of “coping with pain, both physical and emotional.”

When you dissociate, you may feel detached from your body or like the world around you is unreal.

You may also:

  • Be unable to express emotions
  • Be unable to speak or move
  • Lose interest in your surroundings 
  • Feel lightheaded or dizzy
  • Struggle to think or rationalize 

How To Cope With Numbness

If you experience numbness following a cancer diagnosis, take a moment to connect with yourself and your immediate environment.  

“Grounding exercises can bring you gently back to earth,” says Dr. Taylor. 

To cope with numbness, Dr. Taylor recommends:

  • Breathing slowly
  • Putting your hands under cold water
  • Listening to sounds around you
  • Walking barefoot
  • Wrapping yourself in a weighted blanket 

However, if you find yourself dissociating often, a licensed mental health professional can help you process your numbness. According to Dr. Taylor, a therapist can help you “develop a wider set of coping patterns” as well as “work through the trauma of your cancer diagnosis.”


If you feel guilty after diagnosis, you are not alone. Many people with cancer feel like a burden to their friends and families, says Dr. Taylor. Others blame themselves for developing cancer and criticize their lifestyle choices, such as cigarette smoking.

Other thoughts that evoke guilt include:

  • “I could have noticed my symptoms earlier and visited a doctor.” 
  • “Cancer treatment is so expensive. How will my family afford it?”
  • “What if my cancer is hereditary? Are my kids at risk?”
  • “My spouse never asked for this. Now, they have to take care of me while balancing other responsibilities.”

How To Cope With Guilt

Remember: Cancer is not your fault. Even if you maintained unhealthy habits in the past, feel the freedom to forgive yourself. Everyone is human; we all make mistakes. 

“It’s important for people to offer themselves compassion during this time,” says Dr. Taylor. “Compassion can help reduce feelings of guilt.”

You may consider discussing these feelings with your spouse or a close friend. They can provide comfort and support, reassuring you that you are not a burden. They are driving to chemotherapy treatment and cooking freezer meals because they love you and know you would do the same for them. 

Dr. Taylor also recommends focusing on the present – not the past. Rather than fixate on what you could have done differently, think about what proactive steps you are taking to heal. 

Furthermore, a licensed mental health professional can help you process your guilt. Most cancer centers have access to mental health support, so feel free to ask your doctor or treatment team.


Anger is a very typical response to a cancer diagnosis. You may wonder “Why me?” or feel resentment toward your doctors or your healthy friends and family. You may even be angry at yourself, wondering what you did to cause the disease. 

Destructive expressions of anger include:

  • Aggression: You may break things or, worse yet, try to hurt yourself or others. You may be short-tempered, scream or use profane language. 
  • Criticism: When you are angry, you may intentionally seek faults in your friends and family. You may even cast blame on a loved one.  
  • Sarcasm: Biting sarcasm can be very harmful to your relationships. You may, for instance, offer a sneering remark (e.g. “Oh, I’m so glad you feel healthy”) when your spouse goes to the gym or leaves for work. 

How To Cope With Anger

You should never try to suppress anger. Suppressed anger can manifest in physical symptoms like headaches, stomach aches, and insomnia. It can also make you feel like you are on the edge of exploding – like any little event can set you off. 

Instead, you should “recognize the true source of your emotions” and then find a healthier way to release your anger, says Dr. Taylor. Exercise is often a great outlet. Even if you don’t have the energy to go jogging or cycling, a short walk around the neighborhood can relieve tension and release feel-good endorphins. 

Furthermore, a licensed mental health professional can help you process your anger. Most cancer centers have access to mental health support, so feel free to ask your doctor or treatment team.

Seek the Expert Support of SERO

At SERO, our radiation oncologists understand how emotionally draining a new cancer diagnosis can be. You are likely experiencing a spectrum of feelings, from sadness to anger. Like most oncology patients, you are probably also worried about the effectiveness of your cancer treatment.

Fortunately, when you partner with SERO, our leading medical professionals will work together to develop an appropriate cancer treatment plan for your disease type and stage. Then, we will use cutting-edge technology and methods to support your journey to recovery. 

To learn more about SERO and the services we offer, call 704-333-7376.