Living with Cancer


Having cancer can affect your mental health and a diagnosis can cause a rollercoaster of emotions, including overwhelm, anxiety and worry, all of which can be experienced by patients, carers and loved ones. You have every right to feel these emotions, as cancer is scary, and we understand that you may need support to manage both your physical and mental health as a result of a diagnosis.

The word cancer goes round and round in your mind. You are in the waiting room of the hospital you are becoming familiar with and anxiety gnaws at every part of your body as you wait. You don’t necessarily want to worry, but you can’t help but wonder, what is next for me? What is going to happen once I get those results back? You automatically assume the worst, and those thoughts make your heart hammer against your chest as you wait for your name to be called out by the doctor who could have life changing results.

Despite the fact that 1 in 2 people will get cancer in their lifetime, it doesn’t make it any easier when you, a loved one or someone you are supporting gets a diagnosis. It is completely understandable that your mental health may be affected as a result, as there is so much uncertainty about what it means for you and your future.

Why a cancer diagnosis can affect your mental health

When you hear the word cancer, you may conjure up a multitude of worries, concerns or worst case scenarios. Anyone can be affected by it, and you will most likely know someone who has had an experience with cancer before. Hearing other people talk about their journeys with cancer can make you overthink and compare yourself to what others have gone through, or it might make you question the ‘what ifs’ of your cancer diagnosis.

One of Smile’s therapists, Dr Sula Windgassen, advises that the best way to deal with difficult emotions is to “notice how we’re feeling and what sort of thoughts are going through our mind and once we've noticed what the thoughts are, we might be able to get a little bit of distance from the thoughts by identifying some common cognitive distortions that can arise when we're in this anxiety mode.” Cognitive distortions are ‘negative thinking patterns that aren’t based on fact or reality’ (definition taken from Healthline) which may cause anxiety to spiral and make us think irrationally, but it is important to attempt to quiet those thoughts and stop overthinking things that haven’t happened yet.

For 3 in 5 people, getting a cancer diagnosis can be the scariest part, more so than the physicality of the condition itself. This is because many people see cancer as something unpredictable and they are anxious about how much it will affect their lives. It may not be surprising to know that 1 in 3 people who are managing cancer have a mental health condition and feel overwhelmed, lonely or just generally low, but there are many things you can do to support your wellbeing through this difficult time, such as, eating well, making sure you get enough sleep, exercising and socialising with either friends and family or others who are sharing a similar experience to your own.

Cancer treatments and the effect it can have on your mental health

One of the most common concerns is dealing with pain and upcoming treatments. Whilst most people will understand the importance of having treatment for their cancer, it doesn’t make it any less scary and daunting when you are going through it. When you are waiting at hospital appointments, this may be the time that you overthink what is going to happen the most, and this is not at all unusual. 

There are ways you can relax through the anxiety, and one of those ways is to “pick a hand and just start gently tapping with your spare hand on the side of the hand and repeat: even though I have all this anxiety about hospital appointments, I deeply and completely love and accept myself.” This advice is given by our therapist, Charlie O’Brien, to help in those stressful situations such as being in the hospital for appointments. 

Treatments like chemotherapy and immunotherapy may cause you to have questions about what these treatments actually are, why they are being used and how effective they will be. You may have looked online to research treatments or symptoms of cancer, which can often cause you to have more questions, simply because there is no straightforward answer. Everyone has different experiences with pain or symptoms or treatments, and the scarcity of answers you find might mean that you feel anxious about the lack of clarity. 

Anxiety is not out of the ordinary with a cancer diagnosis, so much so that the term ‘scanxiety’ has become an acknowledged phrase that quite simply means when you are worried about a scan you may need to have, whether it is before, during or after. Words that have been adapted into everyday language when you have a cancer diagnosis is evidence of just how common it is to feel anxiety about things like scans and treatments for cancer. 

Other common worries

Another worry that comes up frequently is the fear of cancer returning. Cancer charity, Maggie’s said that 56% of those who have had cancer have said that they do have this concern, which means that even though being cancer free after having treatment should be a positive, it may be clouded by the uncertainty of it returning in the future, thus again affecting your mental health.

You may also be worried about how your family will manage after your diagnosis. It can be upsetting to know that your loved ones are having to witness you going through treatments or the anxiety that comes with waiting for results. There are so many new challenges that can come with a cancer diagnosis which can be hard to manage at times, and you may worry about the effect this is all having on your family. If your cancer means that you are unable to work for some time, this can be difficult for your family too, as you may worry about how you will be able to support them financially.

Another concern is how your day to day life might have to change significantly. If you cannot do everything you want to do or cannot do things that you previously did before a cancer diagnosis, it is understandable if you feel angry or depressed. It can be tricky to come to terms with the changes that are happening, and will take a lot of adapting and getting used to.

The stages of cancer can create a lot of anxiety for many as well. It can make you worry about things like your life expectancy and what each stage actually means in relation to your health. It can be scary to think that your cancer might be growing and could potentially move into a different stage. Stage 4 cancer especially creates a lot of worry because there is even more uncertainty about what this means for your health and you then may start worrying about whether your cancer is curable or if it is terminal and your chance of survival. Of course, these are worrying things to think about and will likely cause a range of emotional side effects.

How cancer can affect the mental health of family members

If you are the family member of someone with cancer, it is not uncommon for you to also feel the effect of the diagnosis. You too can feel overwhelmed and there are once again many reasons for these feelings which may include being worried about your future with your loved one, having more responsibilities as a result of the diagnosis or your relationships with other people changing. People’s response to hearing that someone has cancer can sometimes be to offer you sympathy or to feel sorry for you, which whilst is probably well meaning, can make you feel like you are being treated differently. The impact cancer has on a person can go wider than just the person it is directly affecting, and it is important to realise that it is fine if you are also emotionally affected by the diagnosis.

How to get help if you are experiencing a mental health condition alongside your cancer diagnosis

Despite the fact that there is a lot of evidence that cancer can cause a mental health condition to occur alongside the diagnosis, 47% of people who are living with cancer do not know where to go for mental health support. It is important that more awareness is made to direct people to the appropriate services so they know they can have support for their condition. This can be as simple as just encouraging them to talk to others and share their experience. Research shows that joining a cancer support group gives people a hopeful feeling and a better quality of life, and this is something everyone deserves to have access to.

As a result of a cancer diagnosis, sometimes people can feel helpless and they should have the opportunity to equip themselves with resources that will allow them to improve their mental health. Smile do exactly this, giving those who have a physical chronic health condition, such as cancer, the resources they need to help with the mental challenges that may come with their condition.

Smile works with a team of therapists who offer expert advice through their online content and workshops, helping you with a range of feelings you may be managing including how to cope with waiting times, relaxing for appointments, dealing with what ifs and accepting a diagnosis.

Your experience with cancer will be scary at times but with the right resources it doesn’t have to be as overwhelming as you first anticipated. You can manage your mental and physical health, and you can live well alongside your cancer diagnosis.