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The emotional impact of cancer

Most people will experience a range of strong emotions after a cancer diagnosis. This may be when they first find out that it’s cancer, and also at various times during and after treatment. Cancer is a serious disease, the treatment may take a long time and be demanding, and there are many periods of waiting and uncertainty.

The intense feelings may be constant, or they may come and go. You may find that some pass with time, while others last longer. At times, it may feel like you’re on an emotional roller-coaster.

There is no right or wrong way to feel. Everyone is different, and you need to deal with the diagnosis in your own way. As you navigate this challenging time, it may be reassuring to know that your reactions are natural, there are different ways to manage the emotional impact, and support is available.

Challenging times

Many people find that they cope better than expected with some parts of the cancer experience, but are surprised by how difficult other parts turn out to be.

Diagnosis – When you are diagnosed with cancer, it is often difficult to take in the news immediately. You might hear the words, but not be able to absorb them or believe them. Most people feel overwhelmed at first.

Treatment decisions – The weeks after diagnosis can be stressful as you weigh up your options. You may feel like it is all happening too fast – or too slowly. People
often feel anxious about treatments, side effects and whether they are making the right decision. You may also wonder about how cancer will change you and  your life.

During treatment – Cancer treatments can be physically demanding and disrupt all your usual routines. You may also need to deal with practical issues such as
travelling to treatment, paying for tests and treatments, getting time off work, and managing family responsibilities.

Treatment and side effects – The physical and emotional impacts of cancer are linked. Side effects of treatment can make it harder to cope emotionally, while
emotional distress may make physical side effects worse. The good news is many side effects can now be well managed.

After treatment – Many people are puzzled if their mood doesn’t improve as soon as treatment ends. This can be a time of great personal change as you think about your priorities and adjust to any long-term impacts. It is common to feel concerned about the cancer returning, especially when you have follow-up tests.

Advanced cancer – It can be devastating to find out that the cancer is advanced at first diagnosis, or that it has returned after the initial treatment. If this is the
case for you, you and your family and carers may find it helpful to see a counsellor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

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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.

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