Cancer: it's a diagnosis we all dread. Finding out that you have cancer can be very distressing, as very few of us are equipped to deal with such major news. We've already discussed the most common forms of cancer and their symptoms and treatments in our detailed guide to cancer. Today, we'll be focusing on what happens after diagnosis and sharing practical tips to help anybody coping with cancer.
What Is Cancer?
Cancer is a medical condition that affects millions of people in the UK every year. Macmillan Cancer Support estimates that, by 2030, 4 million people in the UK will be living with cancer.
Cancer happens when cells in a certain part of the body begin to divide and multiply too much. The rapid growth of these cancerous cells is what causes tumours to form. In some cases, cancer cells can break away from the original site and spread elsewhere in the body.
Coping With Cancer - After Diagnosis
Overall, nearly 1000 people in the UK receive a cancer diagnosis every day. Even if you have been suspecting it for a while, it is never easy to learn that you have cancer. However, outcomes for cancer patients are better than ever before, due to developments in medical technology and increasing knowledge. Regardless, there will be lots of different emotions to contend with after your diagnosis. You might feel anxious, sad, angry, confused, or any number of other things. On the other hand, some cancer patients have reported feeling relieved after their diagnoses, because they may have been waiting a long time to find out what was wrong.
Above all else, it is important to acknowledge that all of these feelings are perfectly natural and acceptable. Feelings of shock or denial after your diagnosis will usually get easier to deal with over time. However, feelings of fear, sadness, or loneliness may persist or become harder to handle. If this is the case, there is plenty of help available.
Your GP can refer you to dedicated services for support with mental health and emotional wellbeing. Generally, talking to the people around you can help you cope with negative feelings. These conversations might be uncomfortable or difficult to start. You might want to talk to people you are very close to, or you might prefer to talk to someone you don't know very well like a doctor, nurse, psychologist, or counsellor.
Furthermore, there are several support services you can call for for advice, or simply to speak to somebody who will listen. We've put together a brief list of phone numbers below:
- Macmillan Cancer Support - 0808 808 00 00
- Cancer Research UK - 0808 800 4040
- Marie Curie - 0800 090 2309
How To Tell People About Your Diagnosis
First and foremost, remember that you are in control of who you tell about your diagnosis as well as how and when you tell them. Take as much time as you need to process your own emotions until you feel ready to open up to others.
Some professionals recommend making a list of the people you want to tell, putting them in order from those who will be most affected to least affected. Remember that you can share this news in whatever way feels most appropriate for you, whether that's face-to-face, over the phone, or in a letter or email.
Whoever you choose to tell, it might help to build up to the subject gradually and give them information one piece at a time. This will allow you both to digest what you're saying and acknowledge how you're both responding.
You might find it helpful to prepare for a wide range of possible responses from your loved ones. Some people will react to the news with an outpouring of emotion while others will ask lots of questions that you might not have the answers to yet. Some people might even say nothing at all, possibly out of denial or fear of saying the wrong thing.
By all means, take a break if you need to. These conversations will inevitably be difficult, and it's always okay to tell someone that you need some time.
Coping With Cancer - During Treatment
The side effects of cancer treatment will vary from patient to patient, depending on the treatment they receive. Different drugs can cause different physical, emotional, and psychological side effects, so it's important to discuss your treatment in detail with your doctor. There are often ways they can help you to reduce or manage your side effects.
Common side effects include:
- Hair loss or thinning
- Changes in appetite
Cancer Research UK has a detailed guide to coping with cancer treatment and its side effects.
Next, let's discuss how to deal with the different emotions you might experience as you go through treatment for cancer. Remember that no two people will have exactly the same responses to treatment.
Anxiety - you might feel particularly anxious when you go to the hospital for treatment or check ups. Bringing a loved one with you can help keep you calm. You can also talk to your doctor to get help with anxiety. This help might take the form of talking therapy, counselling, or medication.
Sadness - many people with cancer report that they feel pressure to hide their sadness, but it is totally normal to feel sad about your illness. However, if you are feeling sad all the time and struggling to feel good about anything, you might be experiencing depression. In this case, you should speak to your doctor in order to get the support you need.
Relationship worries - you might worry about the potential toll of your cancer treatment on your relationships with friends and family. Communication is key. Try to make time with your loved ones to talk about how each of you is feeling. Everyone involved can take comfort from being listened to, even if you don't have answers to all of the questions.
Coping with cancer treatment can be difficult for several practical reasons alongside the physical and emotional obstacles. Cancer treatment might impact your ability to work, so your income could be affected. Financial support is available for people with cancer, but most people need advice on where to find it and what benefits they might qualify for. You can speak to Citizens Advice or Jobcentre Plus advisers for help with benefits and government support.
Help At Home
You can access nursing services for medical help at home. A district nurse can visit your home to give medicines or injections among many other important services. Marie Curie nurses can also visit your home to help if you have advanced cancer. This can give your carer(s) a break, which can be help to prevent strain on your relationships.
You can choose to refer yourself to your local social services if you would like. A social worker can check that you are receiving all the benefits you are eligible for, look for charity grants you might be entitled to, and arrange any home help you might need while you are coping with cancer. You can contact them yourself or ask your GP to refer you.
Coping With Cancer - After Treatment
You might undergo treatment for a course of weeks or months. At the end of this course of treatment, you will usually have lots of check-ups to make sure everything is going well. Generally speaking, you will have follow-up appointments every few months for the first year after your treatment. Then, as time goes by, you will have fewer check-ups.
When you go back to hospital for these appointments, you might be reminded of the difficult times you have been through. Feelings of fear or anxiety might return before your appointments. However, these check-ups are often reassuring for lots of people.
Making the Most Of Follow-Up Appointments
Once you have finished your course of treatment, you will likely be eager to move on with your life and put your illness behind you. At the same time, it is very important to make the most of your follow-up appointments. Here are some tips, courtesy of Macmillan Cancer Support:
- Write down your main questions before your appointment. You can also write down the answers when you are there, if it helps you remember them.
- Take someone with you for support and to help remember what was said.
- Always let your doctor or nurse know about any ongoing or new symptoms, or other health worries. Be open and honest with your doctors and nurses. They need information from you to give you the best care.
- Tell them how you are coping with your emotions. They can give you advice or direct you to the right place for support.
- Let them know about any prescribed or non-prescribed medicines you are taking. This includes vitamins, minerals, or herbal or complementary therapies. Occasionally, these can interfere with other drugs, including some anti-cancer treatments.
The Road To Recovery
The process of recovery can extend long after you can the all clear. It will take time for you to get back to normal, or work out what your new normal will look like. This process can seem very daunting but it's important not to rush yourself.
Try setting targets for yourself to build up your progress gradually. Your confidence may have taken a knock over the course of your diagnosis and treatment. Therefore, you should try to challenge yourself to build your confidence back up. If you are nervous about going out and about, challenge yourself to go for a walk with your family or meet a friend for coffee, for example.
It's important to look after your general health after cancer treatment. If you smoke, quitting smoking is without a doubt the healthiest choice you can make. The NHS provides plenty of resources to help those who are trying to quit. In addition, you might have been less active than usual during your treatment, owing to side effects of fatigue and weakness. Now that your treatment is complete, you can start building up to regular physical activity. You should also take care to eat a healthy diet.
Coping With Cancer - Support Groups
Joining a support group can be very helpful for those with cancer, whether you've just been diagnosed, you're undergoing treatment, or you're already in recovery. Whether you choose to go to meetings in person or join a group online, the chance to speak to other people who understand what you're going through is a great way to find support and companionship. You can find local groups using the NHS website's search tool.
During support group meetings, you can talk about any of your experiences, or simply choose to listen if you don't feel ready to speak. Most groups are available to join free of charge; some will ask for donations or simply charge for refreshments. A support group can also help you find additional services like counselling.
If you are or have been a carer for somebody with cancer, there are also dedicated support groups that you can join.
Above all, support groups help people coping with cancer by offering the chance to connect with others, which can make you feel less lonely or isolated.
To find out more, read our detailed guide to cancer, with information on the symptoms, causes, and treatments for common types of cancer.
Terminal Cancer Support
Cancer mortality rates have been declining for decades and experts predict that they will continue to decrease over the next few years. Cancer Research UK predicts that mortality rates will decrease by 15% in the UK between 2014 and 2035.
However, the fact remains that, sadly, some cases of cancer do still result in death. Receiving a diagnosis of terminal cancer is bound to be very upsetting and you will likely feel a variety of strong emotions. Sharing these feelings with your loved ones can help you to cope and help the people around you to understand. Alternatively, if you don't feel ready or able to open up to those around you, you can access professional services such as counselling.
Alongside the powerful emotions you will be feeling, there are also some practical issues to bear in mind. First of all, you should consider writing a will. You might want to find a solicitor or will-writing service to help you. Writing a will means you can decide what happens to your money, property, and possessions after you die. You can also specify who you want to look after any children in your care.
You might also want to think about the kind of funeral you would like. Understandably, you might find it upsetting to think about, but some people find it comforting to have their own plans in place. You might want to write down some details such as the music, poems, prayers, or readings you would like to have, a specific church or other venue, and whether you would like to have a burial or a cremation. Making these plans yourself can help you feel in control of things. It can also take some of the organisational and financial responsibility off of your loved ones after you have passed.
Coping With Cancer - A Brighter Future
It is perfectly natural to feel scared or anxious when talking about cancer. When we hear the word 'cancer', we tend to assume the worst. However, cancer survival rates in the UK have doubled in the last 40 years. As of 2010, according to Cancer Research UK, 50% of people diagnosed with cancer in England and Wales survive their disease for 10 years or more. Survival rates vary depending on the type of cancer, ranging from 98% for testicular cancer to 1% for pancreatic cancer.
What's more, treatments are becoming more effective and widely available. There are also more resources than ever to help those coping with cancer, particularly since the invention of the internet.
Medical professionals are working every day to improve our understanding of cancer. Thanks to research, we are closer than ever to understanding how best to prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer.
For more information on cancer and other conditions, read our guide to 20 common medical conditions affecting older people.
How We Can Help
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, you might be worried about coping with cancer treatment and its physical side effects. You may be experiencing fatigue, pain, or breathing difficulties for example. If this is the case, you might wish to consider a Lifeline alarm system.
Our life-saving service can give you peace of mind in a distressing time. Having a Lifeline alarm means that you can call for help whenever you need it with just the touch of a button. If, for example, you have a fall and are unable to get up, you can press the button on your alarm pendant. You will be connected immediately to our 24/7 Emergency Response Team, who will assess the situation and arrange for help to be sent to you.
If you would like to find out more about the Lifeline personal alarm service, you can read our quick guide to pendant alarms. You can also call 0800 999 0400 and speak to one of our friendly advisers. Alternatively, if you prefer, fill in our Contact Us form online and we will get in touch with you as soon as possible.
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Editor's Note: This article was updated on 30th September 2021 to reflect current information.