Most people feel overwhelmed when they are told they have cancer. Many different emotions arise which can cause confusion and frequent mood swings. You might not experience all the feelings discussed below or experience them in the same order. This does not mean, however, that you are not coping with your illness.
Reactions differ from one person to another - there is no right or wrong way to feel.
These emotions are part of the process that many people go through in trying to come to terms with their illness. Partners, family members and friends often experience similar feelings and frequently need as much support and guidance in coping with their feelings as you do.
Shock and disbelief
“I can't believe it”; “It can't be true”.
This is often the immediate reaction when cancer is diagnosed. You may feel numb, unable to believe what is happening or to express any emotion. You may find that you can take in only a small amount of information and so you have to keep asking the same questions over and over again, or you need to be told the same bits of information repeatedly. This need for repetition is a common reaction to shock.
Some people may find their feelings of disbelief make it difficult for them to talk about their illness with their family and friends. Others may feel an overwhelming urge to discuss it with those around them. This may be a way of helping them to accept the news themselves.
Fear and uncertainty
“Am I going to die?”; “Will I be in pain?”
Cancer is a frightening word surrounded by fears and myths. One of the greatest fears expressed by almost all newly diagnosed cancer patients is: “Am I going to die?”
In fact, nowadays many melanomas are curable if caught early. When a melanoma is not completely curable, modern treatments often mean that the disease can be controlled for some time and during that time many patients can live an almost normal life.
“Will I be in pain?” and “Will any pain be unbearable?” are other common fears. In fact, many people with cancer feel no pain at all. For those who do, there are many modern drugs and other techniques which are very successful at relieving pain or keeping it under control. Other ways of easing pain or preventing you from feeling pain are radiotherapy and nerve blocks. Many people are anxious about their treatment: whether or not it will work and how to cope with possible side effects. It is best to discuss your individual treatment in detail with your doctor / nurse. If you don't understand something about your treatment - ask.
You may like to take a close friend or relative to the appointment with you. If you are feeling upset, they may be able to remember details of the consultation which you might have forgotten. You may want them to ask some of the questions you yourself might be hesitant of putting to the doctor.
Some people are afraid of the hospital itself. It can be a frightening place, especially if you have never been in one before, but talk about your fears to your doctor; he or she should be able to reassure you.
You may find that doctors can't answer your questions fully, or that their answers sound vague. It is often impossible to say for certain that they have completely removed the tumour. Doctors know from past experience approximately how many people will benefit from a certain treatment, but it is impossible to predict the future for a particular person. Many people find this uncertainty hard to live with - not knowing whether or not you are cured can be disturbing. Uncertainty about the future can cause a lot of tension, but fears are often worse than the reality. Gaining some knowledge about your illness can be reassuring. Discussing what you have found out with your family and friends can help to relieve tension caused by unnecessary worry.
”There's nothing really wrong with me”; “I haven't got cancer”
Many people cope with their illness by not wanting to know anything about it, or not wanting to talk about it. If that's the way you feel, then just say quite firmly to the people around you that you would prefer not to talk about your illness, at least for the time being.
Sometimes, however, it is the other way round. You may find that it is your family and friends who are denying your illness. They appear to ignore the fact that you have cancer, perhaps by playing down your anxieties and symptoms or deliberately changing the subject. If this upsets or hurts you because you want them to support you by sharing what you feel, try telling them. Start perhaps by reassuring them that you do know what is happening and that it will help you if you can talk to them about your illness.
“Why me of all people?”; “And why right now?”
Anger can hide other feelings such as fear or sadness and you may take out your anger on those who are closest to you and on the doctors and nurses who are caring for you. If you have a religious faith you may feel angry with God.
It is understandable that you may be deeply upset by many aspects of your illness and there's no need to feel guilty about your angry thoughts or irritable moods. However, relatives and friends may not always realise that your anger is really directed at your illness and not against them. If you can, it may be helpful to tell them this at a time when you are not feeling quite so angry; or if you would find that difficult, perhaps you could show them this section of the website. If you are finding it difficult to talk to your family, it may help to discuss the situation with a trained counsellor or psychologist.
Blame and guilt
“If I hadn't ... this would never have happened”
Sometimes people blame themselves or other people for their illness, trying to find reasons for why it should have happened to them. This may be because we often feel better if we know why something has happened, but doctors don't always know exactly what has caused an individual's cancer, there's no reason for you to blame yourself.
“It's all right for you, you haven't got melanoma”
Understandably, you may be feeling resentful and miserable because you have cancer while other people are well. Similar feelings of resentment may crop up from time to time during the course of your illness and treatment for a variety of reasons. Relatives too can sometimes resent the changes that the patient's illness makes to their lives.
Don't bottle up your feelings. It is usually helpful to bring these feelings out into the open so that they can be aired and discussed. Bottling up resentment can make everyone feel angry and guilty.
Withdrawal and isolation
“Please leave me alone”
There may be times during your illness when you want to be left alone to sort out your thoughts and emotions. This can be hard for your family and friends who want to share this difficult time with you. It will make it easier for them to cope, however, if you reassure them that although you may not feel like discussing your illness at the moment, you will talk to them about it when you are ready.
Sometimes depression can stop you wanting to talk. If you or your family think you may be depressed, discuss this with your GP, who can prescribe a course of antidepressant drugs or refer you to a doctor or counsellor who specialises in the emotional problems of people with cancer.
Learning to cope
After any treatment for cancer it can take a long time to come to terms with your emotions. Not only do you have to cope with the knowledge that you have cancer but also the physical effects of the treatment. Although the treatment for melanoma that has spread can cause problems or unpleasant side effects in some people, many people do manage to lead an almost normal life during their treatment. Obviously you will need to take time off for the treatment, and some time afterwards to recover. Just do as much as you feel like and try to get plenty of rest.
Everyone needs some support during difficult times.
It is not a sign of failure to ask for help or to feel unable to cope on your own. It is important just to accept how you are feeling and not to feel guilty. Once other people understand how you are feeling they can be more supportive.