The Emotional Effects Of A Cancer Diagnosis - SACAP
Applied Psychology

The Emotional Effects of a Cancer Diagnosis

Aug 24, 2021 | By Saranne Durham
The Emotional Effects of a Cancer Diagnosis

Cancer lurks in the back of many of our minds as the dreaded diagnosis. A cancer diagnosis is one which has a ripple effect throughout a person’s life. It’s often the start of a long journey that can be draining on emotional, mental and physical levels. This is because it usually requires a constant positive attitude amidst grueling treatments and perseverance when things are most difficult. Sharing a diagnosis can be difficult. It creates a ripple effect of emotions and sometimes challenges in family dynamics and within friendships. A cancer journey is not an easy one to navigate.

“A cancer diagnosis has an emotional, physical, mental as well as social impact.”

What is Cancer?

Cancer can occur anywhere in the body. It is a collection of over 100 different diseases. Our body’s cells constantly regenerate to replace old and damaged ones. When cells multiply uncontrollably they form tumors. A benign tumor can grow large, but does not spread throughout the body. A cancerous mass is a malignant tumor that is able to spread throughout the body. However, some types of cancer such as leukemias, myeloma and most lymphomas, do not form tumors.

Types of Cancer

There are four basic types of cancer:

  1. Carcinomas: Are the most common cancers. They begin on the surface of an organ (skin, internal organs or glands) and form solid tumors. For example: Prostate, breast and lung cancers.
  2. Sarcomas: Start in the connective and supportive tissue. Such as fat, muscles, bones and blood vessels.
  3. Leukemias: Is a blood cancer. There are four types: acute lymphocytic leukemia, chronic lymphocytic leukemia, acute myeloid leukemia, and chronic myeloid leukemia.
  4. Lymphomas: Begin in the lymphatic system. The lymphatic system consists of glands and vessels that assist in fighting infections. The two primary types of lymphatic cancers are: Hodgkin lymphoma and non-Hodgkin lymphoma.


Cancer is often asymptomatic. Therefore, many people seek medical help for another issue or test to investigate unusual symptoms, which then yields a cancer diagnosis. A definite diagnosis is usually confirmed via a biopsy (the removal of tissue sample for testing). Some are routinely screened for, such as cervical cancer via a PAP smear test.


There are many different treatments. As such, treatment programmes are patient specific and may be one type or a combination. The most common approaches are surgery, radiation and medication. These are intended to shrink tumors, stop the progression of and cure the cancer.

The Cancer Journey

For Those that are Diagnosed

Because cancer is so all encompassing, it can also negatively affect someone’s self-esteem, while creating much uncertainty for them.

5 Common Emotional Impacts of Cancer

  1. Increased Stress Levels
  2. Anger
  3. Anxiety and Depression
  4. Guilt
  5. Loss and Grief

When to Share a Cancer Diagnosis

Think ahead about how and where you share your diagnosis. It’s important to remember that how, what, where and who information is shared depends on the person with cancer. Therefore, while it’s important to share your diagnosis, it should happen when you are ready and within a context of your choosing.

Some people are more privately inclined and would rather only a few key people know. Often, they only tell people who they would like to be supported by. Others become cancer advocates and share their journey more widely. They may write blogs, join support groups and participate in awareness campaigns.

“The person who has cancer should be in the drivers seat when it comes to sharing information.”

A good guide on what details to share is to work according to the context of the discussion and who it’s with. Thus, more intimate details of a diagnosis would be shared with closer family and friends. While a discussion with colleagues and acquaintances could tend towards being more factual and less emotional.

How to Share a Cancer Diagnosis

Because it’s never going to be an easy discussion, and is highly likely to be emotional, it’s best to prepare ahead. You should expect to feel drained and tired after sharing your diagnosis. This is because most times you share it will be emotional to you, even if you don’t show your feelings. Also, to a certain extent, you could be attempting to cushion the impact of your discussion on the other person. Which is mentally demanding. This is why many cancer patients ask someone they’re close to, to help them inform as well as update others.

Three things to do Ahead of Sharing

  1. Write down what details you want to share; think about possible questions and the responses you are comfortable giving.
  2. The time and place you choose is important. Pick a place that is relaxed and ideally more private. Give yourself enough time to share what is planned as well as to answer any questions from the other person.
  3. People react in different ways when they are told something. Prepare yourself for different responses and keep reminding yourself that how someone responds doesn’t reflect on you. It is not your job to manage their emotions or expectations.

“Positive and compassionate people are who you want to surround yourself with during a fight with cancer.”

When you share, the ideal response is one that is positive, kind and empathetic. These are the people you will need to surround yourself with during your cancer journey. Change or end a conversation if someone is harsh, negative, their questions feel intrusive or they start to make you feel uncomfortable. At all times you are in the driver’s seat. Therefore, it’s your choice to share how much you want to with someone else. Saying no, when you don’t want to discuss something, is not selfish but a way of emotionally and mentally protecting yourself.

For those that Support Others with Cancer

Cancer impacts family dynamics and socializing. As a result, it often results in a need to change the roles people play in each other’s lives and the responsibilities they shoulder. For some, this strengthens the bonds between them and for others it worsens existing relationship challenges.

Before Talking to Them

  1. Process your own feelings and emotions.
  2. Learn about their diagnosis so that they don’t have to answer lots of medical focused questions.
  3. Prepare yourself for seeing changes in their physical appearance.
  4. Put yourself in their shoes and think through eg: How you would like to be helped or what you can chat about that’s positive and uplifting.
  5. When you walk alongside someone who is battling cancer, having someone to support you is important. Therefore, think about who you can trust to chat to when you are battling with things. The person who has cancer should not be the one you rely on to help you process things.

When You’re with Them

  1. Listen and only give advice after asking if they would like you to.
  2. Make plans with them for the future as well as ones that are flexible for the immediate time ahead.
  3. Reassure them when you give them a safe space to feel and share their emotions.
  4. Check in with them and offer to help them with specific tasks, such as doing laundry or picking their kids up. Always make sure to follow up on any offers you make.
  5. Treat them the same and make sure to talk about topics unrelated to cancer.

The Role of a Psychologist

Psychologists can provide support to both the cancer patient and those around them. This may be in the form of individual, family or group sessions. A trained professional is able to help someone identify and work through their emotions. Having an external person do this, can take pressure off the person with cancer. Which allows them to focus more on their own mental and emotional wellbeing.  It also provides healthy support for family and friends, which better enables them to support the person they care about.

Are you interested in assisting people to cope better during the difficult times of their lives? If so, then why not consider a career in psychology? SACAP (The South African College of Applied Psychology) has degrees that will start you on your journey to becoming a psychologist. For more information, enquire now.

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