Receiving a diagnosis of cancer is a major life stressor. Emotional stresses are similar to other major Life Stressors such as a traumatic event, an accident or the loss or death of someone close. Cancer challenges physical and emotional well-being. It will challenge your physical state, your role within your family, your work situation, your financial situation, your lifestyle and you psychological well-being.

Common reactions


  • Shock: disbelief, numbness
  • Acute distress: crying, panic
  • Anger: at the injustice, at others
  • Fear: anxiety, worry, dread, apprehension, insecurity
  • Sadness: depression, despair, grief
  • Emotional: tearful, crying, irritable, vulnerable, easily upset
  • Guilt: shame, self-blame


  • Inability to comprehend
  • Denial, minimisation
  • Uncertainty, confusion
  • Difficulty concentration
  • Sense of loss of control, helplessness, hopelessness
  • Confronting mortality, meaning of life and illness
  • Distrust
  • Persecution: Why me? What have I done to deserve this?
  • Increased attention to physical symptoms


  • Withdrawal
  • Apathy
  • Disorganisation
  • Reduced activity
  • Physical
  • Sleep disturbance
  • Headaches palpitations, stomach churning
  • Appetite disturbance


  • Negative, altered body-image, feeling unattractive, repulsed
  • Sense of loss: of body part or feminity


  • Lack of communication
  • Disruption to relationships
  • Feeling misunderstood
  • Feeling isolated
  • Intolerance of others

Coping strategies

Reducing emotional arousal

  • Distraction
  • Activity
  • Talk to others
  • Express emotions
  • Exercise
  • Relaxation techniques

Changing perspective & increasing control

  • Become aware of your thought
  • Identify distortions in your thinking
  • Use Coping Self Talk

Modify stressors

  • Seek information, advice and help
  • Problem solving
  • Communication and conflict management

Increase resistance

  • Diet
  • Exercise
  • Sufficient sleep
  • Low alcohol
  • Cease/limit smoking

Less helpful strategies

  • Passivity/fatalism
  • Withdrawal from others
  • Negativity
  • Avoidance
  • Excessive use of alcohol/drugs

Principles of effective coping

  • Variety: Using a range of coping strategies
  • Flexibility: Being able to change strategies as the situation changes
  • Balance: Not relying on any one coping strategy too much
  • Situation-strategy match: Adopting strategies that suit the situation
  • Evaluation: Trying out and evaluating different strategies to find out what works