Receiving a cancer diagnosis can come as a shock. There are many tips to help a person cope with this diagnosis.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is one of the most widespread conditions worldwide. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimates that in the United States alone, there were around 1,806,590 new cases of cancer in 2020.

What are some practical ways that could help people cope with the shock of receiving a cancer diagnosis and allow them to make the best decisions for themselves?

Medical News Today has spoken with healthcare professionals and explored the experiences of people living with cancer with the aim of offering advice on how best to face this unwelcome news.

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Receiving a diagnosis of cancer can come as a shock to anyone, but one important way of coping with it is to be well informed. Cancer is often surrounded by an aura of myth, and much of what people think they know can often just be hearsay.

So, an important first step is to get as much information as possible from doctors and other reliable sources.

Dany Bell, a specialist advisor on treatment and recovery at Macmillan Cancer Support in the United Kingdom, told MNT, “Being diagnosed with cancer can be a big shock, even if you already suspected you might have it.”

“Cancer is a word that can stir up many fears and emotions,” added Bell, “but making sure you fully understand your diagnosis can help you feel more in control of the situation.”

The NCI also provides a set of suggested questions that people can ask a doctor about their diagnosis.

In a vlog about her experience living with stage 4 ovarian cancer, Texas-based Sharon Nance spoke about how staying informed helped her cope with the news.

If you ever find yourself faced with a cancer diagnosis […] [b]efore you go into a panic mode, I say take a deep breath, be calm, gather as much information as you can about what type of cancer you’re dealing with, what the odds are for the type of cancer that you have, and then go from there, because if you know what you’re dealing with, it’s not so frightful.”

Sharon Nance

Often, communicating with a doctor might feel challenging, as the subject of a cancer diagnosis is always a heavily loaded one. Both the person and the doctor might find it difficult to communicate efficiently.

Dr. Ann O’Mara, head of palliative care research in the NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention, told MNT that there is no magical recipe for success in these cases. However, she said that open communication is very important to ensure that people get the information they need and that the doctor knows how they are coping with the diagnosis.

“If the communication with that physician is causing you to be more stressed out, you have to communicate that to the physician,” she said.

“[People] have to […] communicate to physicians if they’re not getting the right information, or if the information is really devastating to them, they have to be open [with] their physician,” Dr. O’Mara emphasized.

The NCI also offers detailed advice on how to approach a healthcare team in order to ensure the best and most effective communication with them.

Symptoms of depression and anxiety are often a natural outcome after receiving a cancer diagnosis. After all, there are so many unknowns to this equation, and this is a journey that will undoubtedly turn a person’s life upside down.

That is also why it is so important to be able to count on a strong support network.

Approaching friends and family

Bell told MNT that being able to rely on a good support network is always helpful, even though speaking with the people about one’s diagnosis may be a challenge all on its own.

Telling friends and family you have cancer can be daunting, but many people find that having a good support network around them really helps. You may want to tell those closest to you first. After this, you might find it helpful to make a list of who you want to tell. If you like, you can ask someone you trust to tell people for you.”

Dany Bell

“Before telling someone you have cancer,” Bell added, “think about what details you want them to know. Writing this down might help.”

Dr. O’Mara agreed that it is important for a person to talk about their diagnosis with their nearest and dearest. It may be helpful, she noted, to “start with [your] family, and then with friends.” She also suggested that some might find it easier to tell just one friend to begin with.

“You tell one friend, you tell your closest, your best friend, and you ask them to be […] the sounding board for you, so you’re not spending all of the time on the phone talking to everybody,” she said to MNT.

The physical context in which a person talks with others about their diagnosis is also important, Bell pointed out.

“Choose a time and place where you’ll have time to talk without being interrupted,” she advised. “Try to be honest about what you know — it’s OK to say if you are unsure about anything or can’t answer all their questions.”

Asking for help

Dr. O’Mara also told MNT that it may be hard for people with a new cancer diagnosis to solicit support, even though they may find that friends shower them with offers of assistance.

She suggested asking for specific, pragmatic help with small things, such as a cooked meal or a lift to one’s next medical appointment. Small, targeted actions can go a long way.

“When people come to you and say ‘how can I help you,’ the thing that you can do is give them a task, ask them to do something [specific], […] ask them to make a meal for you,” said Dr. O’Mara.

A person may also find it helpful to locate a dedicated support group online or in their community. There are many kinds of cancer support groups that a person may be able to find through online searches or by speaking with specialists.

Dr. O’Mara told MNT that people should easily be able to find a support group by asking a doctor.

“In most of our cancer centers,” she said, “and even in our local physicians’ offices, any experienced clinicians […] — doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners, etc. — usually have a list of local support groups. Oftentimes the hospitals run them for [people with new cancer diagnoses] and their families.”

Still, as Dr. Liz O’Riordan noted, people should not discount online support networks. Dr. O’Riordan is a U.K.-based consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon who has experienced breast cancer.

In her TED talk, she spoke about how she unexpectedly found much-needed emotional, as well as practical, support through social media.

Dr. O’Riordan explained that she “got her own secret tribe” by using Twitter, which helped her find other healthcare professionals who had received a diagnosis of a form of cancer and were about to undergo treatment.

Being able to talk with people who were or who had been in a similar situation to her was a valuable self-care resource, she said in her talk.

Responses of grief and anger are normal feelings to experience when receiving a cancer diagnosis, but such emotions need not be destructive.

The NCI says that in addition to discussing one’s feelings with healthcare professionals and a trusted support group, it may help to keep a journal and write down one’s feelings in order to fully process them.

In another vlog, Nance said that people can sometimes use these negative emotions for leverage. For instance, experiencing anger helped her understand that she did not want cancer to take hold of her entire life.

You have every right to get angry, and I almost encourage that you get angry because it is that fire that’s going to make you get up and say ‘you know what, OK, I’ve got cancer, but I [will not] continue to dwell on the negative aspects of this disease anymore.’ And that’s what I had to ultimately do.”

Sharon Nance

“You have cancer, but don’t let it have you,” added Nance.

Cancer may affect the way a person lives their life, but continuing with activities they once took pleasure in, or even taking up something new — such as crafting, drawing, or writing — could help them stay in touch with who they are outside of their health profile.

The NCI suggests looking for things that one enjoys and shifting more of one’s mental and emotional focus to something pleasant and creative. Some gentle exercise, it says, might also prove useful.

In her blog, Dr. O’Riordan also noted that even though the least taxing physical activity may be exhausting — especially if someone is going through chemotherapy — it could help them cope.

“The best thing you can do is to do a little bit of exercise every day. […] I hated getting ready to go out but felt so much better for it and felt I’d earned the right to veg out on the sofa for the rest of the day,” she says.

Nance candidly explained that “it is a work in progress to learn to live with cancer.” There is no right or wrong way of coping, but what is essential is that the person stays in charge of their body and their life.

For more advice and information on how to cope with a cancer diagnosis, check out the NCI’s advice as well as the American Cancer Society’s dedicated online resources.