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The Emotional Stages of a Cancer Diagnosis
One minute, life is going along as usual, and then boom—you find out you have cancer. At that point, everything changes in an instant, and you know right away that life will never be the same.
Coming to terms with this new reality is a multistep process that takes time. Paula H. Finestone, PhD, a clinical psychologist at Fox Chase Cancer Center, explains the common emotional stages patients go through:
Shock: Is this really happening to me?
Hearing your diagnosis can feel like a bad dream.
“Intellectually, we know that cancer happens,” Finestone said. “But we don’t think it’s going to happen to us.”
This early sense of disbelief can be different for each individual and can range from denial to simply pretending nothing is wrong.
Learning everything you can about your specific diagnosis can help. It’s recommended that you talk with your care team, research your cancer using reputable sources, and talk to others who’ve gone through a similar experience. Gathering information helps put you in control, which can make the situation feel more real and manageable.
Fear: Am I going to survive?
When we think of cancer, we tend to think of the worst.
“When they are diagnosed, a lot of people are worried that they are going to die,” Finestone said.
This fear might be intensified if you’ve watched loved ones go through the same thing. To combat this, it’s important to understand that every person and every cancer is different. Thanks to new treatments and technologies, the chances of a positive outcome are better than ever before.
Guilt: What did I do wrong?
“Whenever crisis hits us, we want to know where it came from and why it’s happening to us,” Finestone said.
You might blame yourself for certain choices you made in the past that may or may not be related to your diagnosis. The truth is, no one knows why some people get cancer, and beating yourself up over the past won’t change what happens today or tomorrow. Instead, try focusing on what’s happening right now.
“If you feel good in that exact moment, enjoy that,” Finestone recommended. “If you’re having a bad day or not feeling well, that’s a call to action to talk with your care team about additional support.”
Loss: Who am I now?
You might feel like your sense of self is being swallowed up by your cancer. It can take over your thoughts and your schedule as well as change the way you see yourself.
“It’s not just mourning your old way of life,” Finestone said. “People feel a sense of loss over their appearance, too. This can come from losing their hair, losing weight, or looking very pale.”
When you start dwelling on what your cancer has taken away, try to think about what this experience might be able to give.
“Maybe it will motivate you to strive for a better work-life balance, speak up for your needs, or reprioritize your relationships,” Finestone said.
Acceptance: I have cancer. I’m going to get through this.
“Over time, the routine of coming in for treatment becomes a part of everyday life, and we adjust and adapt,” Finestone said. “But it won’t happen overnight. It’s a slow and gradual process.”
What matters most is that you continue to move forward and seek help from social workers or psychologists if you need additional support on your journey. Many healthcare institutions offer these services to patients, and it’s always a good idea to speak to your care team about supportive services that can address your emotional needs during this difficult time.