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by SusieQ

Cancer Support Specialist's View
07 March 2018 at 12:49

Coping with a new cancer diagnosis

You can't smooth out the surf, but you can learn to ride the waves.

Many of us have experienced sitting in a hospital consulting room, waiting with sweaty palms, for the results of recent tests. Feeling tense, looking round the room for clues (tissue boxes, serious faces, etc). If we’re there supporting someone else who is waiting for news, it can still feel an anxious time – a sense that what we’re about to hear may be life changing…

There are few scarier words than ‘you have cancer’ – even if you’ve been wondering and worrying about symptoms for a while. Logically, our fears are often unfounded – many cancers respond well to treatment – however society has made ‘cancer’ a word to dread.

Sometimes the diagnosis can be a relief, as it may explain some of the health problems you’ve experienced. However, for those who have a cancer diagnosed through routine health screening, (such as breast, cervical and bowel for example) – it can be an even bigger shock. Many people immediately fear the worst, and worry that they may die…even if, realistically, they’re aware it can be treated. Others may block off any internal alarm bells, and go into immediate practical mode – deferring an emotional response for the time being. There’s no right or wrong way to respond…

However, there are ways, as the days and weeks go by, following that definitive appointment, which can help ease the process….and here are my top ten tips:-

a) Find out the facts – this may not be immediately, but it will help to know more about what to expect treatment wise, what other tests are needed, and how long the treatment plan will last. Everyone’s capacity for taking in information is different, and it can help to take someone with you to listen and take notes. Be careful what you read on the internet however – it can be helpful to use one of the recognised cancer information sites initially, where information is tailored to be realistic but not overwhelming. Maggie’s Cancerlinks, for example, can guide you to up to date information from various reliable websites.

b) Acknowledge your emotions – you may go through a range of emotions over the next days and weeks. People are often shocked and numb at first, and there is often a surreal element to the news, like it’s not really happening. Some of may feel unfounded guilt – should you have gone to the doctor earlier, made different lifestyle choices, etc.

You may feel angry, upset, tearful, worried, denial…the range is immense. It can feel overwhelming at first, and feel like things are suddenly insecure and out of your control. Although you may not believe it – these feelings do generally pass – as things move forward, and treatment decisions are made – but it’s Ok to admit this is an upsetting time.

c) Start taking control – It may feel like the future suddenly feels less safe, and the loss of control over events can make us feel helpless. Taking some control back, can tip the balance, and help us cope and adapt. Finding out the facts (as discussed) can be a start, but then planning how to manage other areas of your life helps re-establish order.

If you're working, let your employers know that you are going to be off for treatment. Finances may to be a worry, - if so, seek advice. (Here at Maggie’s Online Centre, you could contact Tom (Tombenefits) to talk things through).

Get to know the team that will be looking after you – if you have a specialist nurse, make contact, and ask any questions. A visit to your GP to explain the outcome of your appointment, and talk through how he/she can support through this may help too. A file to keep all the hospital letters, and appointments etc, can come in handy – and a calendar for all the important dates.

d) Tests take time – prepare for the waiting game. Having a diagnosis is often only the first part of a busy few weeks. It is an unsettling fact that there may be more tests, scans, and appointments before all the facts are obtained. The time can feel endless – and it’s tempting to imagine the cancer is growing wildly in the meantime. This isn’t generally the case - in cancers where treatment needs to be started immediately (eg: some haematological cancers) , that generally happens. In most other cases, the doctors need to find out the whole story before proceeding with a treatment plan. If you’re anxious about results, or things seem to be taking longer than predicted, don’t be frightened to chase things up…

e) Taking care of body and mind – there are things you can do to help yourself to get through the waiting period before treatments begin. It may be that you would like to look at your diet – even if you were eating healthily already. There’s a great deal of nutritional advice out there – some of it seemingly conflicting, so seeking the advice of an expert can be clarify things. Maggie's Centres provide advice and support on healthy eating, and have books on nutrition available in our centre libraries. Gentle daily exercise, and perhaps learning ways to relax and de-stress, help that sense of control, and help the body and mind be in better shape for future treatments and beyond.

f) Be kind to yourself – the days after receiving a cancer diagnosis may feel overwhelming. If you need time out from work, or need to back out of social engagements for a while, then allow yourself that time. Keep in touch with the people you care about, maybe by text, phone or social media, but don’t feel you have to be seen to ‘cope’ initially – this is your time to reflect and re-group. This may also apply to those who are close to you emotionally – parents, children, siblings – it can take a few days/weeks to regain a sense of being able to cope.

g) Acknowledge these feelings will pass – I’ve talked a good deal about the emotional response – and for many people, it can be a difficult time, with thoughts and feelings heightened, mixed up, and chaotic. For others, an icy calm descends, whilst those around the epicentre struggle with the news. I sometimes think it’s like throwing a rock into a pond – there’s a huge splash, big waves, gradually dwindling to ripples, then things settle down. If the feelings are frightening, overwhelming, or you start to feel anxious and depressed for more than a few days – don’t be afraid to ask for help – see your GP for advice, and seek support.

h) Talk to others initially you may not feel like discussing what is happening – it can make everything feel more real. Talking things through with others can help relieve the tension, share the problems, and ease concerns. Family, friends, work, etc, can be a source of support and comfort. I admit there may be the occasional person who doesn’t cope well with your news – and that may be more to do with their issues about cancer, than your own. Friendships sometimes ebb and flow at this point. True friends will rally round – and if they offer help, don’t hesitate to take them up on it. (You may need to specify in what way you can be helped).

Talking with other people who have been through similar experiences can be a great relief – hearing how people got through treatment, and how life is now, can give a sense of optimism. You may also hear about people who haven’t done so well – that’s OK – remember you’re at the beginning stages and your cancer and its outcomes are unique to you. Don’t be tempted to compare like with like…

i) Making treatment decisions – you may be asked to make some treatment choices, and be given a huge amount of information to back this up – just when your brain feels it’s lost any concentration power. Don’t be afraid to ask questions – either at the appointment, or re-clarify things with your /consultantspecialist nurse/GP if unsure. Contacting a cancer support specialist here online, or visiting your nearest Maggie’s Centre, can help make sense of the information overload…

j) Find support – you’ll find your own level of support – and you may find you’re doing OK on your own, initially. However, another tool for your ‘coping’ toolbox, is to look for support as you go through this initial phase. I’ve talked about fact finding, and emotional needs. There are practical issues too – and finding a support mechanism that works for you is a good way of taking back control. This can be through support groups, online forums, and centres which offer support (such as Maggie’s Centres). Don't forget us here at the Maggie's Online Centre - online support at your fingertips...


If you’re reading my blog, and can think of other tips you found helpful, as you faced a cancer diagnosis, please feel free to comment. I have also added some links to other websites which have addressed the same issue – and wish you luck as you move forward…

Coping with a cancer diagnosis - NHS Choices
Coping with cancer – American Cancer Society
After diagnosis – How do I cope – American Cancer Society
Being told you have cancer – Maggie’s Cancerlinks

Warm wishes


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