Emotions and Cancer
Even though family and friends can be there to help, many people still find it hard to ask for, and then accept, support. When you are dealing with treatment and side effects, your support network can make an enormous difference. Family and friends usually appreciate being allowed to provide support – it helps them feel useful. Some people don’t have family and friends who are willing or able to help, but there are also many sources of professional support.
People are often willing to help if they know what you need. Family and friends can support you in different ways. Some people will be able to talk about the cancer and comfort you if you are upset. Other people may prefer to offer practical support. If you have a partner or another person providing most of your care, an important role for other family members and friends may be to support that carer.
Some people like to use an app on their smartphone or computer, such as CanDo, LOVLIST or Caringbridge. These apps allow you to list tasks and set up a roster so people can choose activities that match their availability and interests. The apps can also be a convenient way to share updates with your social circle.
The suggestions below may be a useful prompt when people say, “Let me know if you need anything.”
Provide practical support
- prepare meals
- do household chores
- go grocery shopping
- drive you to appointments
- share an after-school roster
- help you exercise
Keep others informed
- screen calls and emails
- act as the main point of contact for family and friends
- coordinate offers of support
- update social media
- keep you company
- listen patiently without trying to solve your problems
Keep you involved
- get you out and about
- talk about other things apart from cancer
It’s not unusual for people to find themselves alone at some points in their life. Having a serious illness when you feel that you have no close family or friends can be especially hard, but you don’t have to cope by yourself. The hospital social worker can link you with local services. Other sources of support could include not-for-profit organisations, including Cancer Council SA and cancer-specific groups (such as Breast Cancer Network Australia and Prostate Cancer Foundation of Australia), and community and faith-based groups. If you have children, their school may have a school counsellor or offer other types of support.
If you want to talk about the diagnosis or how you’re coping with treatment and side effects, you may want to connect with a support group, either in person, over the phone or online. In a support group, people can share tips and insights with others who have gone through, or are going through, a similar experience. Some people say they can be more open and honest in a support group because they aren’t trying to protect those close to them. You may find it easier to talk about your diagnosis and treatment, your relationships with friends and family, and your hopes and fears for the future.
While almost everyone with cancer experiences distress at some point, it can be hard to know if how you are feeling is a typical reaction or something more serious. If you talk to a health professional about your concerns, they are likely to use a standard method to measure how you are feeling. For example, you may be asked to rate your distress over the past week on a scale of 0 to 10 (often known as a “distress thermometer”) and complete a checklist of problems.
Warning signs of anxiety and depression
At any stage after a cancer diagnosis, it is natural to have days when you feel sad or worried. Sometimes a person may begin to feel “stuck” in their distress and become anxious or depressed. If this is the case for you or someone you care about, it is important to seek help. You may need to seek professional help if you:
- find it difficult to function on a daily basis
- have lost the desire to do things that previously gave you pleasure
- find you are feeling depressed most of the day, nearly every day
- begin to rely on alcohol or recreational drugs
- stop eating regularly (unless the loss of appetite is an expected side effect of the cancer treatment)
- are sleeping too much or having a lot of trouble sleeping
- are worried you might hurt someone because of your anger
- think about self-harm or taking your own life.
Anxiety and depression are quite common among people who have had cancer, but there is no need to face this experience alone. Talk to your cancer care team or GP and discuss whether counselling or medication – even for a short time – may help. You can also call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or get in touch with Beyond Blue on 1300 22 4636 or at beyondblue.org.au. For 24-hour crisis support, call Lifeline 13 11 14 or visit lifeline.org.au.
If you are having intense thoughts about hurting yourself or others, seek immediate assistance by calling Lifeline 13 11 14. In an emergency, call Triple Zero (000).
GP – Your GP can assist you with treatment decisions and works in partnership with your specialists in providing ongoing care. They can refer you to other health professionals for support with managing emotions or thoughts. Check with your GP to see if you can access Medicare rebates for sessions with a psychologist or social worker.
Cancer care team – The team at your hospital or cancer treatment centre will often include social workers, psychologists, psychiatrists and spiritual care practitioners. If you let your cancer specialist, cancer care coordinator or cancer nurse know how you are feeling, they can arrange for you to see these other health professionals as needed.
Psycho-oncologist – A psycho-oncologist is a social worker, psychologist or psychiatrist who has specialised in the field of cancer care (oncology). They provide support to people with cancer and their families and carers, and often work in hospitals and cancer treatment centres.
Counsellor – Counsellors can listen to what is going on in your life and offer strategies for dealing with issues you are facing. They do not need to have any qualifications to practise, although many do, so it’s a good idea to check before making an appointment. Cancer Council SA provides a free counselling program. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information.
Social worker – Social workers provide emotional support, arrange practical and financial assistance, and help people find support services. They must complete a four-year undergraduate or two-year postgraduate degree.
Psychologist or Clinical Psychologist – Psychologists use evidence-based strategies to help you manage emotional conditions, usually in the long term. A registered psychologist must complete four years of psychology at undergraduate level, followed by either postgraduate studies in clinical or health psychology or two years of supervised clinical practice.
Psychiatrist – A psychiatrist is a trained medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of mental illness. As well as providing psychological support and discussing issues with patients, a psychiatrist may prescribe medicines to help manage a range of emotional conditions. You need a referral from your GP to see a psychiatrist.
Mental Health Nurse – The role of a mental health nurse includes assessing people, giving medicines and assisting in behaviour modification programs. They must be a registered nurse who has completed further study in mental health nursing.
Spiritual Care Practitioner – Also known as a pastoral carer, a spiritual care practitioner is often a member of the team at hospitals and cancer treatment centres. They can discuss emotional and spiritual matters and help you reflect on your life and search for meaning. They can also arrange prayer services and other religious rituals, if appropriate.
Cancer Council – If you want to talk through your concerns or you’re not sure where to go for help, you can talk to an experienced health professional by calling Cancer Council 13 11 20.
A cancer diagnosis can affect every aspect of your life and often creates practical and financial issues. There are many sources of support and information available to help you, your family and carers navigate all stages of the cancer experience, including:
- information about cancer and its treatment
- access to benefits and programs to ease the financial impact of cancer treatment, such as help with the cost of prescription medicines, transport costs, utility bills (e.g. electricity, gas, water, phone, internet) or basic legal advice
- home care services, such as Meals on Wheels, visiting nurses and home help
- aids and appliances to make life easier at home
- support groups and programs
- counselling services.
The availability of services may vary depending on where you live, and some services will be free but others might have a cost.
To find good sources of support and information, you can talk to the social worker or nurse at your hospital or treatment centre, or get in touch with Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Cancer Council SA offers a range of services to support people affected by cancer, their families and friends.
Cancer Council 13 11 20 – Our experienced health professionals will answer any questions you have about your situation and link you to local services.
Information resources – Cancer Council produces booklets and fact sheets on more than 25 types of cancer, as well as treatments, emotional and practical issues, and recovery. Request your free copies by calling 13 11 20, emailing email@example.com or order online.
Legal and financial support – If you need advice on legal or financial issues, we can refer you to qualified professionals. These services are free for people who can’t afford to pay. Financial assistance may also be available. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 to ask if you are eligible.
Peer support services – You might find it helpful to share your thoughts and experiences with other people affected by cancer. Cancer Council SA can link you with individuals or support groups by phone, in person, or online. Call 13 11 20 for more information.
Practical help – Cancer Council can help you find services or offer guidance to manage the practical impacts of cancer. This may include helping you access accommodation and transport services.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed November 2021 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Anne Burke, Co-Director, Psychology and Allied Health Lead, Cancer, Central Adelaide Local Health Network and The University of Adelaide, SA; Hannah Chen, Psychologist, Cancer Council Queensland; Hazel Everett, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Cancer Services, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Shona Gates, Senior Social Worker, North West Cancer Centre, TAS; Dr Jemma Gilchrist, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Mind My Health and Crown Princess Mary Cancer Centre, Westmead, NSW; Sandra Hodge, Consumer; Dr Michael Murphy, Psychiatrist and Clinician Researcher, Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Dr Alesha Thai, Medical Oncologist, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Alan White, Consumer.