The emotional impact

It can seem easier to turn away from painful thoughts and feelings. There is no right or wrong approach.

“I saw the specialist and he said ‘I’m afraid to tell you it’s incurable.’ That word, ‘incurable!’ was so powerful. And I picked up a cancer booklet somewhere and there it was again, so it must be true. It took a long time to accept that.” Viv

For some, dealing with these strong emotions may help you see life in different ways.

“When I’m low, I often think I will scream if one more well-meaning person says ‘Be positive!’ However, even when I’m low, I can decide to take positive action.” Kerry

Advanced cancer can create a lot of uncertainty in your life and for many people this can be the hardest aspect to deal with. You may feel very concerned about your partner and family/whānau. You may be worried about how they are feeling and how they will cope in the future. It can be an extra strain if you have young children or other dependants.

Worry, anxiety, and panic attacks

When you have been diagnosed with advanced cancer, it is natural to worry about what will happen. Sometimes the worry can be very intense, and more like fear or anxiety. Fear and anxiety are normal reactions to stressful situations.

Fear and anxiety may be present all of the time or may come and go. Sometimes the feelings can be very intense and difficult to cope with. You may find that you can’t concentrate, are irritable and easily distracted, sleep badly, and get tired easily.

If you are very anxious, you may have a panic attack. The fear and anxiety are almost overwhelming and you may feel very breathless, have a pounding heart, sweat, and shake. This can be very frightening, and some people worry that they will die during a panic attack.

If you feel your anxiety or worry is getting worse and interfering with your life, you may need to get help from your GP, counsellor, or psychologist. They can help you to look at the fear and find ways of coping with it.


It is not unusual to have times when you feel very low after a diagnosis of advanced cancer. Some people find their sadness gives way to a situation where their mood is low most of the time, and they are depressed.

Depression can usually be successfully treated and the first step to feeling better is getting appropriate help.

We all have days when our mood is low. Usually people or events can cheer us up, or after a few days our mood lifts.

Emotional symptoms of depression:

  • very low mood for most of the time
  • not feeling your usual self
  • not being able to be lifted out of your low mood
  • loss of interest or enjoyment in favourite activities
  • feeling worse in the mornings
  • problems getting off to sleep or waking early
  • poor concentration and forgetfulness
  • feelings of guilt/burden/blame
  • feeling helpless or hopeless
  • feeling vulnerable or oversensitive
  • feeling close to tears
  • irritability
  • loss of motivation, being unable to start or complete jobs.

Physical symptoms of depression:

  • low energy, fatigue
  • physical aches and pains
  • loss of or increase in appetite, with weight loss or gain
  • loss of sexual interest
  • anxiety or panic attacks.

Men are more likely to be aware of the physical symptoms rather than the emotional ones. Women tend to be more aware of the emotional symptoms.

It can be very difficult to know whether you are depressed. If your mood is low most of the time and you have even one or two of the other symptoms, talk to your doctor.

Try some self-help strategies and see if they help you to feel better (see the section on complementary therapies). You can ask to be referred to a counsellor, psychologist, or psychiatrist. For some people, anti-depressant medications can be helpful. Talk to your doctor about this.

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