What Are the Emotional Stages of Cancer?

Reviewed on 1/19/2021

Grief, terror, anger, depression and other overwhelming emotions can all affect cancer patients. Mental health support can be a crucial pillar of cancer treatment to improve quality of life and even physical treatment outcomes.
Grief, terror, anger, depression and other overwhelming emotions can all affect cancer patients. Mental health support can be a crucial pillar of cancer treatment to improve quality of life and even physical treatment outcomes.

Cancer not only affects a person’s physical health, but it can affect a person’s emotions. A cancer diagnosis can bring up feelings that people are not used to dealing with, and feelings can be intense. 

People think about and cope with a cancer diagnosis in different ways but may patients go through emotional stages when they are first diagnosed, including: 

  • Shock: may range from complete denial to just acting as if nothing is wrong  
  • Fear: people are worried they are going to die
  • Guilt: people may blame themselves for choices they made in the past that could be related to the diagnosis or feel guilt for burdening loved ones 
  • Loss: a person’s sense of self can be taken over by cancer and treatments
  • Acceptance: slowly and gradually, people adapt and move forward

Other common emotions experienced by cancer patients include: 

  • Feeling overwhelmed
    • Being diagnosed with cancer may make some people feel as if their life is out of control
      • They may wonder if they will live or die
      • Doctor’s appointments and treatments disrupt everyday life
      • Patients may feel hopeless
    • To cope with feeling overwhelmed: 
      • Learn about your cancer and ask questions
      • Stay busy and participate in activities you enjoy
  • Anger
    • This may stem from fear, frustration, anxiety, and helplessness
      • It may be directed toward healthy loved ones, caregivers, or even God
    • To cope with anger:
      • Don’t try to pretend everything is ok
      • Talk to loved ones or a counselor
      • Anger can also help motivate people to take positive action
  • Stress and anxiety
    • This is normal, but stress can prevent the body from healing 
    • To cope with stress and anxiety:
  • Sadness and depression
    • A loss of health and the life people had before the disease can lead to sadness – this is normal
      • If feelings of sadness don’t go away or interfere with normal activates, it may be depression
    • To cope with depression:
      • Tell your doctor and seek counseling if you experience depression
  • Loneliness
    • Cancer patients may start to feel distant from others due to being sick or feeling no one understands what they are going through
    • To cope with loneliness: 
      • Talk with others
      • Join a support group
      • Seek counseling
  • Hope and gratitude
    • Hope and gratitude often follow acceptance
    • Chances of living with cancer are higher than they have ever been and many people with cancer lead active lives
    • Cancer may be seen as a “wake up call,” allowing people to enjoy the little things in life
    • Many patients focus on embracing the things that bring them joy

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Reviewed on 1/19/2021
References
https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/coping/feelings

https://www.foxchase.org/blog/the-emotional-stages-of-a-cancer-diagnosis