Emotional Reactions to a Diagnosis of Cancer

Search Knowledgebase

Topic Contents

Emotional Reactions to a Diagnosis of Cancer

Topic Overview

The impact of a diagnosis of cancer differs from person to person. It is normal to experience anger, frustration, or disappointment. The following home treatment may help you with your emotional reaction to a diagnosis of cancer:

  • Get enough rest and sleep. During sleep, your mind makes sense of what has happened to you. Adequate rest and sleep can help prevent physical illness and exhaustion. Many times simple home treatment can relieve your sleep problems. Try activities to help you relax, such as meditation or guided imagery. Do not use non-prescription medicines, alcohol, or street drugs. Talk to your health professional if you are having difficulty sleeping.
  • Eat well. Resist the urge not to eat or to eat only those foods that comfort you. If you have trouble eating alone, ask another person to join you for a snack or meal. If you do not have an appetite, eat frequent small meals and snacks.
  • Exercise. If nothing else, take a walk. Brisk walking and other forms of exercise, such as yoga or tai chi and qi gong, can help release some of your pent-up emotions. One study showed that regular exercise can improve a woman's chances of survival from breast cancer.1
  • Comfort yourself. Allow yourself the opportunity to be comforted by familiar surroundings and personal items that you value. Special items, such as photos or a loved one's favourite shirt, may also give you comfort. Treat yourself to something you enjoy, such as a massage.
  • Maintain your normal activities. Stay involved in activities that include your support network, such as your family and friends, work, church, or community activities.
  • Get the support you need. There are many different types of support programs, including individual or group counselling and support groups. Some groups are formal and focus on learning about cancer or dealing with feelings. Others are informal and social. All types of support help you explore your feelings and develop coping skills. Studies have found that people who take part in support groups have an improved quality of life, get better quality sleep, and feel like eating. Contact your local chapter of the Canadian Cancer Society to help you find a support group. Talking with other people who may have had similar feelings can be very helpful.

To help you cope with your diagnosis and treatment:

  • Avoid quick fixes. Resist the urge to drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes, or take non-prescription medicines or street drugs. When you are under emotional stress, these may only add to your unpleasant feelings and experiences and may mask your emotions and prevent you from normal, necessary grieving.
  • Ask for help. During times of emotional distress it is important to allow other people to take over some of your responsibilities. Other people often feel the need to show you how much they care about you.
  • Surround yourself with loved ones. You may feel lonely and separate from other people when you are grieving. You may think that no one else can understand the depth of your feelings. Surrounding yourself with people that you love and talking about your feelings and concerns may help you feel less lonely and more connected with others.
  • Talk about your feelings. Discuss your concerns with your family and friends or your doctor or nurse.

The Canadian Cancer Society has collected information on coping with physical and emotional changes. You can find it on their Web site at www.cancer.ca/Canada-wide/About%20cancer/Coping%20with%20cancer/Living%20with%20cancer/Reacting%20to%20the%20diagnosis.aspx?sc_lang=en.



  1. Holmes MD, et al. (2005). Physical activity and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. JAMA, 293(20): 2479–2486.


By Healthwise Staff
Primary Medical Reviewer E. Gregory Thompson, MD - Internal Medicine
Specialist Medical Reviewer Michael Seth Rabin, MD - Medical Oncology
Specialist Medical Reviewer Andrew Swan, MD, CCFP, FCFP - Family Medicine
Last Revised February 24, 2010

This information does not replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise, Incorporated disclaims any warranty or liability for your use of this information.