Mayo Clinic Health Library

Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping

Updated: 09-10-2011

Learning that you have cancer is a difficult experience. After your cancer diagnosis, you may feel anxious, afraid or overwhelmed and wonder how you can cope during the days ahead. Here are 11 suggestions for coping with a cancer diagnosis.

Get the facts about your cancer diagnosis

Try to obtain as much basic, useful information as possible about your cancer diagnosis. Consider bringing a family member or friend with you to your first few doctor appointments. Write down your questions and concerns beforehand and bring them with you. Consider asking:

  • What kind of cancer do I have?
  • Where is the cancer?
  • Has it spread?
  • Can my cancer be treated?
  • What is the chance that my cancer can be cured?
  • What other tests or procedures do I need?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • How will the treatment benefit me?
  • What can I expect during treatment?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment?
  • When should I call the doctor?
  • What can I do to prevent my cancer from recurring?
  • How likely are my children or other family members to get cancer?

Keep the lines of communication open

Maintain honest, two-way communication with your loved ones, doctors and others after your cancer diagnosis. You may feel particularly isolated if people try to protect you from bad news or if you try to put up a strong front. If you and others express your emotions honestly, you can all gain strength from each other.

Anticipate possible physical changes

Now — after your cancer diagnosis and before you begin treatment — is the best time to plan for changes. Prepare yourself now so that you'll be better able to cope later. Ask your doctor what changes you should anticipate. If drugs cause hair loss, advice from image experts about clothing, makeup, wigs and hairpieces may help you feel more comfortable and attractive. Insurance often helps pay for wigs, prostheses and other adaptive devices. Members of cancer support groups may be particularly helpful in this area and can provide tips that have helped them and others.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

This can improve your energy level. Eating a healthy diet consisting of a variety of foods and getting adequate rest may help you manage the stress and fatigue of the cancer and its treatment. Exercise and participating in enjoyable activities also may help. Recent data suggest that people who maintain some physical exercise during treatment not only cope better, but may also live longer.

Let friends and family help you

Often friends and family can run errands, provide transportation, prepare meals and help you with household chores. Learn to accept their help. Accepting help gives those who care about you a sense of making a contribution at a difficult time. Also encourage your family to accept help if it's needed. A cancer diagnosis affects the entire family and adds stress, especially to the primary caregivers. Accepting help with meals or chores from neighbors or friends can go a long way in preventing caregiver burnout.

Review your goals and priorities

Determine what's really important in your life. Find time for the activities that are most important to you and give you the most meaning. If needed, try to find a new openness with loved ones. Share your thoughts and feelings with them. Cancer affects all of your relationships. Communication can help reduce the anxiety and fear that cancer can cause.

Try to maintain your normal lifestyle

Maintain your normal lifestyle, but be open to modifying it as necessary. Take one day at a time. It's easy to overlook this simple strategy during stressful times. When the future is uncertain, organizing and planning may suddenly seem overwhelming.

Talk to other people with cancer

Sometimes it will feel as if people who haven't experienced a cancer diagnosis can't fully understand how you're feeling. It may help to talk to people who have been in your situation. Other cancer survivors can share their experiences and give you insight into what you can expect during treatment.

You may have a friend or family member who has had cancer. Or you can connect with other cancer survivors through support groups. Ask your doctor about support groups in your area or contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society. Online message boards also bring cancer survivors together. Start with the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network.

Fight stigmas

Some old stigmas associated with cancer still exist. Your friends may wonder if your cancer is contagious. Co-workers may doubt you're healthy enough to do your job, and some may withdraw for fear of saying the wrong thing. Many people will have questions and concerns. Determine how you'll deal with others' behaviors toward you. By and large, others will take their cues from you. Remind friends that even if cancer has been a frightening part of your life, it shouldn't make them afraid to be around you.

Look into insurance options

If you're employed, you may feel trapped, unable to change jobs for fear of not qualifying for new insurance. If you're retired, you may have difficulty purchasing new supplemental insurance. Find out whether your state provides health insurance assistance for people who are difficult to insure. Look into group insurance options through professional or fraternal organizations. The Family and Medical Leave Act and the Americans With Disabilities Act may be of help during this time.

Develop your own coping strategy

Just as each person's cancer treatment is individualized, so is the coping strategy you use. Ideas to try:

  • Practice relaxation techniques.
  • Share your feelings honestly with family, friends, a spiritual adviser or a counselor.
  • Keep a journal to help organize your thoughts.
  • When faced with a difficult decision, list the pros and cons for each choice.
  • Find a source of spiritual support.
  • Set aside time to be alone.
  • Remain involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can.

What comforted you through rough times before your cancer was diagnosed is likely to help ease your worries now, whether that's a close friend, religious leader or a favorite activity that recharges you. Turn to these comforts now, but also be open to trying new coping strategies.

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