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Looking after your mental health during and after cancer


Expert reviewer, Helen Storey, Oncology Counsellor, Cromwell Hospital
Next review due February 2024

Cancer doesn’t just affect your physical health – it can affect your mental health too. If you’re diagnosed with cancer, it’s very normal to feel a wide range of emotions. Here we look at how cancer can affect you mentally and emotionally, and suggest some useful coping strategies.

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How cancer can affect you mentally

Being diagnosed with cancer is life changing for you and your family. During and after your treatment, you’re likely to go through a whole range of emotions. Common reactions include fear, anxiety, sadness, guilt and anger.

It’s natural to feel frightened and overwhelmed when finding out about a cancer diagnosis. It can have a huge impact on your life, as well as the lives of the people around you.

There’s no set way for you to feel, and your emotions may be very up and down. You may feel very positive at times and very anxious at others. However you are feeling is OK.

Some people may tell you that you need to keep positive and that your mood can affect your cancer and its response to treatment. This isn’t true – see our FAQ: Can stress cause cancer or make it worse? below. Don’t worry if you have a down day – it won’t set you back. It’s important to express your feelings, and it’s fine to have a cry or get angry from time to time if you need to.

If you want to talk to someone

If you feel it would be helpful to talk to someone now, Macmillan Cancer Support has a support line for anyone affected by cancer. There are also helplines from mental health charities such as Mind and Samaritans that you can call if you feel distressed, and their websites include information that may help. If you are a Bupa member, you can also contact our oncology support service for emotional and practical support.

Worry and anxiety

When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you’re likely to worry about how it will affect you or a loved one and what the future may hold. Cancer can affect your whole family, and talking to each other about how you feel can help you all to cope.

You may feel anxious about appointments for tests or treatments. These feelings may come and go, or they may be there all the time. Finding out more about the tests and treatments for cancer may help you to feel more positive and less anxious.

You may be surprised if you feel anxious after your treatment has ended, but this is quite common. You may be expecting to feel relieved, but instead find that seeing your doctors and nurses less often can be a worry. You need to give yourself time to adjust.

If your worry and anxiety get very bad, this can affect your daily life. You may feel tired, irritable, unable to concentrate and have trouble sleeping. You may have physical symptoms too, including:

  • aching muscles
  • feeling sick
  • butterflies in your tummy
  • sweating
  • feeling your heart thumping in your chest (palpitations)
  • finding it harder to breathe

Some people have panic attacks. These have similar symptoms to anxiety, but they’re much more intense. Part of coping with your cancer is about looking after your emotions. So, it could help to talk to your doctors and nurses if you’re having problems with worry or anxiety. Some hospitals have specialist counsellors you can talk to. Discussing how you feel and talking through what’s making you anxious may help you to put things into perspective.

If you’re caring for someone with cancer, you may find that it helps to talk about your emotions and how you’re feeling. Try talking to family, friends or a local or online support group.

Making some changes to your lifestyle may help to ease anxiety. Eating well and exercising can give you more energy, which may make it easier for you to cope. Some people find simple relaxation exercises or complementary therapies, such as meditation and acupuncture, help too. See Helping yourself below.

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Anger

Having cancer, or knowing someone who does, can make you feel angry from time to time. You may not be able to do things you used to do. You may think it’s unfair that you or someone you love has been affected by cancer but others haven’t. Feeling angry is a natural response, and you shouldn’t feel guilty about having angry thoughts.

Anger becomes a problem when it begins to harm the relationships you have with others. Relatives and friends may think you’re angry with them rather than with the cancer. They may also feel angry that you have to deal with the cancer or that it’s changed their lives too. Your friends and relatives may find it helps to speak to someone about how they’re feeling.

If you can, talk to those closest to you about how you feel, ideally when you’re not feeling angry. Let them know that you’re angry at being unwell rather than at them. If you find it difficult to talk to your family, and you think your anger is becoming a problem, talk to your doctor or nurse. They can help you find ways to cope. This may be through self-help techniques (such as relaxation exercises), counselling or a specialised anger management programme.

Depression

Feeling sad and low at times isn’t unusual when you’re coping with cancer. But a continuous low mood that doesn’t go away after a couple of weeks can be a sign of depression. Depression may affect up to one in four people with cancer. If you’ve had depression before, you may be more likely to get depressed when you have cancer. It’s important to remember that depression is common and can be treated.

If you’re depressed, you may feel low all the time and no longer enjoy the things in life that you used to. Other symptoms may include:

  • feeling very tired and having no energy
  • feeling restless and agitated
  • having no appetite
  • difficulty getting to sleep or waking early
  • sleeping too much

You may not realise you’re becoming depressed because it can come on gradually. It may be that the people around you notice it first. They may try to talk to you about it and suggest you seek some help. If you think you may have depression, the first step is to see your doctor. Your doctor may suggest several different types of treatment, including:


There are also ways you can help yourself – see Helping yourself below. Being active and doing activities such as yoga may help to ease depression. At the very least, getting out for some fresh air and exercise may help to lift your mood and help you to sleep better.

Helping yourself

It’s not always easy, but you may be able to help your mental health if you are able to:

  • find ways of looking after your physical health
  • spend time learning to relax
  • find ways of talking about how you feel

It’s also very important to ask for help when you need it. If you feel you aren’t coping, don’t feel guilty or embarrassed about asking others for support. Life-changing events, such as cancer, are often difficult to deal with. Remember help is out there, and taking advantage of it can make all the difference.

Looking after your physical health

It’s not always easy to do this when you feel unwell from cancer or your treatment, but taking steps to tend to your physical health is important. It can positively affect your mental health. It may also help to ease any treatment side-effects and any changes that having cancer brings.

  • Eating well when you have cancer helps you to cope with treatment side-effects, recover faster and fight off infections. Cancer treatments may affect your sense of taste, or cause you to feel sick, which can affect how much you feel able to eat. If you’re off your food at times, try to make up for it when you’re feeling a bit better. Macmillan has a booklet of recipes for people affected by cancer, which includes suggestions for people with specific eating difficulties.
  • Regular physical activity during and after cancer can make you feel more positive and boost your general health. It may also help you to manage anxiety or depression. Just as much as you can manage right now could make a difference, including walking and gentle stretches. If you haven’t been active for a while, build up slowly to 30 minutes of moderate exercise five days a week.
  • Sleeping well is important. Tiredness can affect your concentration, lower your energy levels and affect your physical health. If you’re having trouble sleeping, sticking to a good bedtime routine can help – there are also lots of other things you can try to get a good night’s sleep. Tell your doctor if you’re still having problems sleeping.

Relaxation

Learning to relax can help to boost your mood and ease depression and anxiety. It may also help you to deal with any sleep problems and cope with pain.

A warm bath or listening to soothing music may be all it takes for you to unwind and relax. Or you may want to try relaxation techniques. There are several different types, including:

  • imagery – picturing a scene that you find calming, such as the memory of a holiday
  • muscle relaxation – tensing and relaxing your muscles in turn, from your feet to your head, while imagining tension flowing out of your body
  • breathing exercises – focusing on the rhythm and depth of your breathing and slowing it down

To get the most from these techniques, it’s best to practise daily for a short time. Choose a warm, quiet place where you won’t be disturbed. You can buy books and relaxation tapes to help you. Or you may want to join a group or class.

Mindfulness can help you to deal with stress. It makes you more aware of how you think and feel in different situations, so that you can deal with negative thoughts more easily. You can combine mindfulness with everyday activities such as breathing and walking. Exercises include mindful breathing and mindful walking meditation. You may also find that yoga, tai chi or music therapy helps you relax.

Keep Talking

Cancer can be a worrying time, and many people find it hard to talk about it. But talking about your cancer can be comforting and can help you find support and feel less anxious and more in control. It’s up to you to decide who you want to talk to about your cancer and how much you want to say. Here’s a list of suggestions.

  • Cancer doctors and nurses will be aware of the emotions and reactions people have to the illness. Ask them to explain anything you don’t understand, including any cancer terminology they use when talking to you at your appointments or in hospital.
  • Support groups and helplines can provide a listening ear, advice and practical tips to help you cope with cancer.
  • A counsellor or psychologist can help you work through worries and fears. Your doctor can refer you. Some employers have an employee assistance programme that provides confidential counselling and advice.
  • Family and friends will be better at coping and supporting you if they understand how you feel.
  • Talking to children about cancer can be a frightening thought. Often, the best approach is to be open and honest, using simple language and find out what they want to know. Although it can be hard, it’s important to tell your children what’s happening. You may feel as though you’re protecting your child by not talking about it. But in reality, it can cause them to feel shut out, frightened and worried. For details of organisations that provide lots of helpful information around talking to your children about cancer, see Other helpful websites below.
  • Talking to colleagues about cancer is your decision. You may find it helpful to talk to your manager and/or occupational health adviser so they can help you cope at work.

When cancer treatment ends

Many people find that when their cancer treatment has finished this can be a difficult time. Friends and family want you to ‘get back to normal’ whereas you may be still coping with the side-effects of treatment. This is sometimes a time when people join a support group – Macmillan Cancer Support has information about finding a support group near you. Some people may also benefit from counselling at this point. Speak to your healthcare team about how you are feeling and to ask for any support you need while adjusting after cancer treatment. You may also find that taking healthy lifestyle steps after treatment, such as exercising and eating well, can help your mood too.

Frequently asked questions

  • Doctors haven’t found any evidence that stress can cause cancer or make it worse. But how you feel when you’re under stress may affect how you cope with cancer and its treatment.

    If you’re feeling stressed, you may be less likely to take good care of your health – you may drink more alcohol than usual or choose unhealthy foods. Smoking, alcohol and being very overweight may make you more likely to get certain types of cancer.

    If you’re struggling to cope, speak to your doctor, family or friends. Having counselling or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) won’t treat your cancer, but this may help you to cope better with stressful situations.



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  • Reviewed by Victoria Goldman, Freelance Health Editor, and Graham Pembrey, Bupa Head of Health Content, February 2021
    Expert reviewer, Helen Storey, Oncology Counsellor, Cromwell Hospital
    Next review due February 2024

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