A cancer diagnosis brings on a lot of thoughts and feelings, and many can come suddenly, or at the same time. In a word, it can be overwhelming – and life changing.

So to help you begin to cope with the process of diagnosis and treatment, we’ve broken down a few of the most important things to expect, as well as some practical steps that you can take to get your feet under you and start treatment at your best.

Coping with a cancer diagnosis

Cancer is big. You’re fighting a disease and every part of your body will feel it. And while it’s important to recognize the physical toll it will take, a diagnosis is mentally and emotionally taxing – and the way you feel mentally and emotionally directly impacts how you feel physically.

How does cancer affect you emotionally and mentally?

There’s a wide range of emotions that can come with a cancer diagnosis – typically the stages of cancer include denial, anger, bargaining and guilt, depression, loneliness, and grief. Then you may experience hopefulness, acceptance and even gratitude. However, these emotions, and their intensity, can vary greatly.

It’s important that you don’t compare your emotional or mental state to other people’s or hold yourself to a set standard of behavior. Your experience with cancer is your own, and there’s no right or wrong way to feel. However, it’s important to ask for help if you need it.

Cancer and anxiety

Uncertainty and change can be sources of stress, and following a cancer diagnosis, you’re likely to experience a lot of both. This may lead to strong feelings of anxiety, which can affect your quality of life and make things harder as you’re going through treatment – but other people can help. Talk to your care team if your day-to-day life is being impacted by:

  • Constant worrying, overthinking or fear
  • Intrusive anxious thoughts
  • Difficulty concentrating or remembering new information
  • Trouble sleeping

Cancer and depression

Changes in the health and life you’re used to can lead to feelings of grief and sadness. These feelings can affect you physically – draining your energy or your appetite, for example. Sadness is a normal response to cancer, and may fade with time. But in some cases, it may not fade. This is when it’s important to let a loved one or your care team know, because you may be at risk for depression. Get help if any of the following symptoms last for longer than two weeks:

  • Constant sadness or emotional numbness
  • Feeling helpless, guilty or worthless
  • Losing interest in or having difficulty with things you normally enjoy

When to share your cancer diagnosis

When you tell others about your cancer diagnosis is up to you. Coming to terms with feelings about cancer can be difficult. And it can take time. Deciding who to share this news with – and when – can be difficult. But in some cases, sharing feelings may be helpful. Your instinct may be to protect those close to you from worry. However, the support of family and friends could help you – and even them – cope with a cancer diagnosis.

If you’re a parent, for example, you may worry about how your children will react to your diagnosis and treatment. But talking openly and honestly about your cancer with your children is important and healthy.

Studies show that telling children about a cancer diagnosis is better than holding back. It’s also better to tell them sooner rather than later. Children who are old enough to sense that something has changed can be supportive if the situation is explained.

Keep in mind that when you share your diagnosis with people, you might get a variety of reactions – some of them unexpected that may leave you feeling upset, disappointed or surprised. Usually, if someone reacts badly, it’s not meant to be insensitive. Some people may have a personal experience that makes them uncomfortable with the situation, they may be shocked about the diagnosis, or they may simply not know what to say or do.

Family and friends may have similar feelings of anger, fear and confusion. They may need time to adjust to news of the diagnosis or need to talk right away. If someone’s reaction is upsetting, know that you don’t need to respond right away. Ask a supportive loved one to help respond when you’re ready.

If a family member or friend is unable to be supportive, find other people who can be there for you. Social workers, therapists and spiritual counselors are all good options.

Talk to your doctor about your diagnosis

In the beginning, a new cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming. Asking the right questions can also be difficult. You’ll probably have a lot of questions before or during treatment. Here are some questions to consider asking at your follow-up appointments:

  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • How common is the type of cancer I have?
  • What stage is my cancer?
  • What treatments do you recommend for my cancer?
  • Why do you recommend these treatments?
  • How well do these treatments work?
  • What is my prognosis with these treatments?
  • What are the short-term risks, side effects or symptoms of these treatments?

Coping with cancer treatment

Once you start treatment, you’ll be going through a lot of changes – in your energy levels, your appearance, how you feel overall and more. These changes can be hard, but there are things you can start doing now to make the process easier.

Learn about your medicines

You’ll be taking a number of medicines during cancer treatment. Some may be direct parts of your treatment, while others may be for managing side effects of treatment, or of the cancer itself.

Your care team will give you plenty of verbal and written instructions for taking your medication, and every piece of instruction has a purpose behind it. To make sure your medicines are as effective as they should be, it’s important that you follow these instructions exactly. Let your care team know if something gets in the way, or if you’re having uncomfortable or unexpected side effects when taking one of your medicines.

And don’t be afraid to ask questions if you don’t understand something about your medication, their effects or the instructions for taking them.

Prioritize a healthy lifestyle

In addition to any medicines you’re given to help manage side effects, the choices you make in your day-to-day life can have a big impact on how you feel during the course of your cancer treatment. Eating enough, getting regular physical activity and lifestyle changes like practicing relaxation techniques can all:

  • Boost your energy
  • Improve your sleep
  • Improve your mental well-being
  • Strengthen your immune system
  • Support healing
  • Improve your tolerance of treatment

There’s no shortage of nutrition, exercise and lifestyle tips for living with cancer, so be sure to ask your care team if they have any recommendations.

Look after your emotional well-being

Looking after your physical health has many benefits, but don’t forget to also support your mental and emotional health. And you don’t have to rely just on yourself or the people around you. Social workers, therapists and spiritual leaders can help you, your family and caregivers learn how to address:

  • The range and intensity of emotional reactions to a cancer diagnosis, treatment and survivorship
  • Cancer-related anxiety and depression
  • Cancer’s impact on relationships
  • Side effects of treatment
  • Feeling more in control
  • Meaning and spirituality

On the following episode of the For Health’s Sake podcast, mental health therapist and social worker Nancy Wiedmeyer explains ways to care for yourself during cancer treatment.

Consider integrative therapies

Some cancer care centers offer a combination of massage, acupuncture and other therapies to complement cancer treatment. Integrative therapies may help you:

  • Relax
  • Focus on healing and positive outcomes
  • Feel less fatigued
  • Experience relief from pain, anxiety or nausea
  • Gain a sense of control
  • Find harmony and balance

Get all the help you need

Coping with cancer means a lot of things. From your initial diagnosis through treatment, you have to deal with changes in your own emotions and the emotions of those around you, on top of changes in your physical and mental health.

There’s no wrong way to feel as you go through this, but asking for help is always right, whether you’re asking your loved ones or your care team. Whatever you need, they’re here to help.