Common reactions

There is no right or wrong way to feel

You might feel a range of emotions when you hear that you, or someone you love, has cancer. Understanding how you feel can be helpful. Even though you may feel distressed, it does not mean you are not coping. There is no right or wrong way to feel. Everyone is different and you will cope with things in your own way and in your own time.

“ I felt completely overwhelmed having to deal with all the admin tasks associated with treatment. Making sure referrals happened when they’d been forgotten and dealing with insurance providers. All this running around to make sure everyone was on the same page was stressful – navigating the health system can be a nightmare.” Jill
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You may feel shocked when you are told you have cancer. It is often difficult to understand the diagnosis immediately—you might hear the words but not believe them. Cancer is a serious disease, and most people feel afraid and unsure about the treatment, the side effects, and the likely impacts on family/whānau, friends, and work. People sometimes feel numb, or ‘shut off’ from their emotions. This is normal. It is a protective mechanism that the brain uses when everything feels too overwhelming.

Fear, anxiety and panic

It is normal to feel frightened or anxious at times during this experience.You might worry about what will happen to you. Fear and anxiety have physical effects. They are a bit like being very nervous before an exam or a job interview. When you are anxious your body releases adrenaline. This makes your heartbeat quickly and your hands sweat, and you may feel hot or cold, have a headache, or get butterflies in your stomach.

Often anxiety changes our digestive system, so we can feel sick, lose our appetite, or have an upset tummy. For some people the anxiety is overwhelming and they experience panic attacks. Panic attacks feel awful but they are generally not dangerous to your health. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage these.

Anger and resentment

Some people ask, “Why me?” You may feel resentful of the good health of others. You may feel angry with family/whānau, friends, medical professionals, your God, or even yourself. These are natural reactions to the changes that cancer has caused to your life plans. It is important to be aware of your feelings and find healthy ways to deal with anger so that you do not hurt yourself or others.


You may have trouble believing or accepting that you have cancer. Sometimes denial allows people time to adjust to their diagnosis. Denial is a normal reaction. However, it can become a problem if it stops you from seeking information and treatment.


After being diagnosed with cancer it is normal to feel sadness. It may be there all the time or it may come and go, depending on what is going on in your life. Sadness is different from depression. Sadness is part of healing. It allows you to emotionally process any loss, grief, change, or disappointment and gradually move on.


Depression is a much more intense feeling than sadness. People with depression find it difficult to feel joy or pleasure. It is hard to manage and can affect your ability to cope with everyday things. It is important to remember that being depressed does not mean you are weak. Depression needs treating, just like a broken leg or a heart condition. You may need medication, counselling, rongoa or spiritual healing. Talk to family/whānau and your treatment team to find ways to support. Remember that your mental health is as important as your physical health. If you are concerned about yourself or someone else, talk to your GP or treatment team. There is a lot that can be done that can make a difference to you. has helpful information.

Me maumahara, he mea tino hira tō hauora hinengaro, pērā ki tō hauora tinana. Mehemea kei te māharahara koe mōu anō, mō tētahi atu rānei, kōrero ki tō GP, ki tō rōpū maimoa rānei. He nui ngā huarahi hei āwhina kia pai ake ai koe. Kei konei ētahi pārongo āwhina
“ I remember an appointment with my oncologist after several tough surgeries and 6 months of chemo. She said to me,“Andrew, I think you are depressed.” And I was, I just didn’t know it. From the realisation, that my body was unwell and my mind could only hold me together for so long, meant I was able to move forward with help.”

Feeling alone

It is common to feel that others do not understand what you are going through. Family/whānau and friends may find it hard to know what to say. Many people find that talking to other people who have cancer diagnoses is very valuable. Explore the support groups available in your community and online.

There may be times when you want to be left alone to reflect on your thoughts and emotions. This is a very normal reaction for some people. However, if you find that you would rather be left on your own for most of the time and often avoid talking to people, this may be a sign that you are depressed.

Feeling vulnerable

A cancer diagnosis can make you feel very vulnerable. You may feel as though you have lost your independence and no longer have control over your life. It may also seem that things you used to do and find easy are now much more difficult, or that your role as a person who looks after everyone else has been reversed. This might cause you to lose some confidence. Give yourself some time to rebuild your confidence and self-esteem.
“ Remember, this is a moment in time, another chapter in your life and you will get back your confidence and self-esteem. Your personality remains unaffected so you are still the same person albeit with some physical differences. You are still you.” Jill

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Loss and grief

Many people only associate loss and grief with dying. However, grieving and feelings of loss can also happen when someone receives a diagnosis of cancer. Many changes and losses occur with cancer. You may be missing work, people, regular exercise or an active and fun social life. You may feel that your relationships have changed. Some family/ whānau and friends may stay away because they are not sure how to deal with your cancer. You may be dealing with an uncertain future and financial changes. It can take time to adjust to the changes and challenges you are now facing, so be kind to yourself.


Cancer can lead to uncertainty in many areas of your life. Learning more about cancer and its treatment, and finding positive ways to look after yourself, can give you back a sense of control. If you are having trouble dealing with any of your emotions, consider talking to family/ whānau and friends, seeking professional help or joining a support group.

If you feel that you can’t talk to someone about your reactions contact the Cancer Information Helpline on 0800 CANCER (226 237).

Worrying about the cancer coming back

Feeling anxious about cancer coming back (recurring) is common for people after cancer. For some people this fear affects their ability to enjoy life and make plans for the future. You may feel more anxious at times, such as on the anniversary of the day you were diagnosed or when you hear about cancer in the media. Many people who have had cancer say that, with time, they feel less anxious. You could talk to your treatment team or GP about recognising the differences between normal aches, pains, and sickness and cancer symptoms.

“ The anxiety has faded with time. I am 7 years cancer-free and I don’t think about cancer so often. Although I do still think about it sometimes. Check-ups and scans are an anxious time. These serve as a reminder, bringing back old memories and fears.” Andrew

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