Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be difficult, but the coping that comes after is often a bigger hurdle. Alongside other tips in this article, it is important to remember that support is available if you seek it out
Although cancer can be one of the hardest diagnoses to receive, people living with cancer today have much more reason than those of previous generations to feel optimistic.
With advancements in cancer research, diagnosis and treatment, people living with cancer today have a better chance of recovery than ever before. Coping with a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, but there is support available.
Getting the diagnosis
Even if you were expecting bad news, immediately after diagnosis you may feel too shocked to absorb much of the information that your specialist gives you.
If you are receiving the results of tests that could bring a cancer diagnosis, take a relative or close friend with you to your medical consultation. They can ask the difficult questions or write down the answers to your queries if you are too distraught to think clearly.
"A relative or close friend can ask the difficult questions if you are too distraught to think clearly"
In most cases, your oncologist will initially have discovered what type of cancer it is from a biopsy. Further information about the rate of spread is gleaned from scans and blood tests. Once this is available, your treatment options will be discussed with you.
Sources of support
Soon after diagnosis, you will be given a “key worker”—often a nurse specialist—who will be able to answer your questions. You will find there is a great deal of support available to cancer patients, ranging from support centres to helplines and online.
In the very early days of diagnosis, the UK cancer charities are an excellent source of calm, sensible advice and information. A good starting point is the major patient care and advocacy organisations, such as Macmillan Cancer Support. Avoid any websites claiming to offer a cancer cure—they are unlikely to be reputable.
Understanding survival statistics
If you ask about the long-term outlook for you, you will be given statistics on survival rates. Statistics tell you about the percentage of people with different types and stages of cancer who are alive and disease-free after five or ten years following different types of treatment. They cannot predict how well you as an individual will do.
Your prognosis will depend on the stage and grade of the cancer, how early it has been detected and your age and general health. If you want to see survival statistics for a particular type of cancer, many are available on www.cancerhelp.org.uk.
Dealing with the diagnosis
There is no “right” way to deal with a cancer diagnosis, and everybody’s experience of cancer is unique, explains Celene Doherty, Cancer Information Nurse Specialist with Macmillan Cancer Support. It is devastating news that produces a wide range of emotions: everybody copes with it in their own way. There’s no one right person to talk to about having cancer, but getting support really helps.
To begin building a positive attitude, accept both your negative feelings and the help you will need to cope with them. At first you may feel shock and panic, then fear, anger, uncertainty and sadness. These feelings may stay or come and go. Allow yourself time to develop coping strategies that work for you.
"There is no “right” way to deal with a cancer diagnosis, and everybody’s experience of cancer is unique"
In her work, Celine has noticed that while some people gain comfort from telling lots of people about their diagnosis, others react differently and tend to withdraw from everyone other than their nearest and dearest. And those closest to you will want to be involved, she says. “If you do not share your feelings with them, they may feel excluded from your illness and unable to support you as they—and perhaps you—would like.”
If you find it difficult to discuss, focus on telling one person: “If you can find the courage to talk to just one person about how you feel, it can be the first step towards dealing with your emotions.”
Can your mental attitude affect your cancer?
There has been much debate about whether staying positive improves cancer survival rates. A large 2007 study in the journal Cancer found that emotional well-being had no effect on survival, and another study reviewing past papers concluded that: “There is little consistent evidence that psychological coping styles play an important part in survival from or recurrence of cancer.”
"Your mindset will colour your daily life but may not affect the course of your disease"
So do not feel guilty if you cannot feel positive. Current thinking is that people should cope in the best way they can in order to feel physically or emotionally better, rather than to improve survival or prevent recurrence. Your mindset will colour your daily life but may not affect the course of your disease.
Getting the right support
If you prefer not to talk to friends and relatives about your illness because you are afraid of distressing them or feel that you cannot be as honest as you want to be, there are plenty of other places to turn to. Here are some ideas:
- Counselling: In one trial, women with breast cancer who received counselling felt more relaxed than those who did not. Blood tests showed that their immune systems were also boosted. You can find a counsellor specialising in cancer through your hospital, or through one of the cancer charities or the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
- Religion: Some people find that they gain support from spiritual advisers when they are ill.
- Cancer support centres: Find out if there is a cancer support centre in your area. It may offer counselling, advice, self-help and support groups, and complementary therapies.
- Helplines: The telephone helplines run by cancer charities are great sources of practical help on everything from treatment side effects to claiming benefits.
- Online forums: Online message boards or real-time chat rooms allow you to exchange experiences with others at any time of the day or night. Close friendships can sometimes be formed this way. Most cancer charities run online forums. Also visit www.healthtalkonline.org or www.experience.patient.co.uk.
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