5 Points for coping at diagnosis

Feel - Article 02

A cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. But with all the focus on tests, treatments and practicalities, the emotional impact can sometimes be overlooked. Here are a few suggestions to help you get the right balance:

1. Put emotions aside when you must and make time for them when you choose

In the first few days and weeks, your emotions are going to be running hot. There may be a sudden, sharp shock, or a slowly mounting fear, and mixed feelings such as sadness, anger, regret, determination and grief.

At some point, these emotions can be too much, especially when there is so much to do. You might either decide to not let yourself feel all this right now. Or the brakes come on automatically, described as a ‘numbness’ or the feeling of ‘being in a bubble’. This is just our mind protecting us.

It’s common and quite healthy to put feelings gently aside while you deal with immediate practical stuff and buy some time to get your bearings and evaluate the situation properly. Notice, acknowledge, gently put aside for a bit later. It’s okay. At the same time, it’s not generally advisable to push feelings aside so much that there’s never any time for them. That’s when feelings tend to spill out – when your guard is down, when physically unwell, in dreams, during the night, when receiving a kind gesture. You can then feel suddenly overwhelmed and out of control, and actually push down harder.

It may sound odd, but it’s better to make space for strong feelings when you are having a good day. You need that balance and strength of a good day to let yourself feel things without getting overwhelmed. Create some space and time to go over any feelings you have noticed and put aside. Make it as safe and comforting as you can. It may be with a good listener by your side, who doesn’t try to solve stuff too quickly; or it may be alone on a walk around the park, or anything else. Allow some time to touch the feeling, think about it, and then wrap it up gently and turn to doing something nice, diverting, different, active.

If you’re worried that once you let yourself feel something, you’ll ‘never stop crying’, that’s just an unwarranted fear of emotions. It doesn’t actually happen that way (unless there is major emotional difficulty in the background*). Attending to your feelings, proactively and with kindness to yourself, will give you more control, not less.

2. Name your fears

The beliefs we carry about cancer will inevitably be made up of what we’ve seen from experiences of others around us or in the media. The most vivid, emotionally weighted stories will often be most prominent in our mind (that’s how memory works). Less dramatic stories will be harder to recall.

Try to identify the stories, fears and images that come to you when you think about cancer. Acknowledge that these are scary, and evaluate rationally if any of these are relevant to your case. If these are related to medical matters, turn them into questions for your doctor or nurse specialist – ‘I had seen that… Is that relevant to my case?’. 

3. Focus on what you can control.

There will be hundreds of valid questions and worries that will pop into your mind. Your mind is trying to figure out a radically new situation, so overthinking is not surprising.

Pay attention to them and ask yourself: Is this something I can control? Can I do something actual, practical about this, right now?

  • If yes – write it down on your task list and plan to do it.
  • If not – write it down on your ‘to watch’ list. Don’t waste time and energy on trying to mentally solve uncontrollable, hypothetical future problems.

4. Know your softs spots

Like all adversity, cancer will put added strain on whatever wasn’t quite in balance before. It could be job dissatisfaction, personal confidence, a strained relationship, a painful loss, a tendency to stress, past traumas. Not all distress and difficulty will be cancer itself, but it may well flare up existing problems.

It can be very helpful to acknowledge this. Then you can ask yourself:

  • Can I put that aside for now?
  • How might it affect me?
  • And, most importantly: what additional help and support do I need, given that strain, to get through this?

Talk to your clinical team, and your Onko coach, and find out the process for getting that support. You may not need it yet, but you will feel stronger for knowing that there is help available.

5. It will pass

Whether your cancer is treatable, curable, big or small, we promise the worst moments emotionally will pass. People can, and do, adapt.

Plenty of research and patient experience tells us this; and if you look carefully enough at your own story, you will find other times where you adapted and changed and difficult things passed. Now, once you get more familiar with your treatment, the places and the people, the level of threat and uncertainty will reduce.

As you process the emotions a bit at a time, with kindness to yourself, they will settle. When you are right at the start, of course, you may not entirely believe or trust this, but try to hold onto this idea.

A final note

For this section, and throughout the Onko program, if you notice that your psychological reactions are intense and troubling, or are causing you or others around you difficulty, please talk to us and we will work with you to plan appropriate clinical assessment and care.