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Shock and denial

Coping with cancer

This page is about two common reactions to cancer – shock and denial. There is information about

 

Shock

Shock is often the first reaction when a doctor tells someone they have cancer. You may

  • Feel numb
  • Not believe what is happening
  • Be unable to express any emotion
  • Find that you can only take in small amounts of information
  • Ask the same questions repeatedly
  • Need to have the same information repeated to you

Needing to have information repeated is a common reaction to shock. You just can’t take anything in at first.

Your disbelief may be so strong that you find it difficult to talk about your illness with your family and friends. Or you may find that you need to talk about it over and over again to help the news to sink in.

There is more information about talking about your cancer at the end of this page.

 

Denial

Some people choose to cope with their situation by pretending it’s not happening. It’s not that this is necessarily a conscious decision. It can be a gut reaction. You may just feel overwhelmingly that you can’t think about it whenever anyone brings the subject up.

You may find that you

  • Don’t want to know anything about your cancer or treatment
  • Prefer to talk about it as little as possible or not at all

This is another completely natural reaction. If you feel this way, you can tell the people around you quite firmly that, for the time being, you don't want to talk about your illness.

But in extreme cases, denial can be unhelpful. Some people deny their cancer so firmly that they convince themselves that either they aren’t ill at all, or that their illness isn’t cancer. If this reaction starts to get in the way of your treatment or makes your overall situation even worse, you may need professional help from a psychologist or counsellor.

 

Other people being in denial

Sometimes you may find denial happens the other way round. You may need to talk about your cancer, but your family and friends may be the ones in denial. They may

  • Try to dismiss the fact that you are ill
  • Seem to ignore the fact that you have cancer
  • Play down your anxieties and symptoms
  • Deliberately change the subject

People can react in this way because they are frightened of cancer themselves. They may be embarrassed by talking about it. Or they may be terrified that someone they love has a life threatening condition. If they don't talk about it, they can try to pretend it isn't happening.

But if you want their support, and to share how you feel with them, this behaviour may hurt or upset you. If you feel like this, try to

  • Tell them how you feel
  • Reassure them that you know what is happening
  • Explain that talking to them about your illness will help you
 

Talking about your cancer

Talking about your situation really can help. If you would like to share your feelings with someone, but don’t feel you’re able to talk to your friends and family, it may help to talk to a counsellor.

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, look at our list of counselling organisations. There is also information about what counselling is.

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Updated: 4 July 2014