How do I mentally prepare for cancer treatment?

You can help yourself to get ready for cancer treatment by looking after your mental wellbeing.

Focussing on your mental health is one part of prehabilitation. This is a programme of advice and support that can help to prepare you for treatment. The other parts are eating a varied diet and being physically active.

Focusing on these three areas, in whatever time you have before treatment starts, can help you:

  • feel more in control of your health
  • cope better during treatment
  • recover better

And by making it part of life with cancer, it can help you to live well in the long term.

Understandably you might be going through a lot when diagnosed with cancer. Focusing on these lifestyle changes might sound overwhelming. Everyone will have different needs and abilities, so do what you can and be kind to yourself.

Don’t hesitate to ask your healthcare team for advice – they will want to help you during this time. 

The video below is about how you can mentally prepare for cancer treatment. The advice and information on this page are based on the universal interventions of prehabilitation. This means it is for anyone affected by cancer.

What support can help with mental wellbeing?

What support you might need with your mental wellbeing at the time of diagnosis will depend on your:

  • circumstances
  • needs

A cancer diagnosis and waiting to start treatment can be very distressing and unsettling for you and your loved ones. It is normal to go through a period where you might experience uncertainty and worries about:

  • your prognosis and survival
  • permanent physical changes
  • discomfort or pain

Anxiety or depression

Anxiety or depression often starts after diagnosis. It might also start when treatment ends when you get back to your usual responsibilities. You might feel overly worried or panicked, which are symptoms of anxiety.

Or you might feel low in mood and not yourself. You might also withdraw from the world around you. These are symptoms of depression.

Support

But there is a lot of support available at the time of diagnosis. You can use:

  • information and support centres at hospitals (Macmillan or Maggie’s)
  • online communities organised by people who had cancer treatment before
  • online forums or chats hosted by cancer charities
  • support from your specialist nurse, occupational therapist or other members of your medical team at the hospital or your GP
  • support groups for your cancer type or cancer in general
  • a variety of apps such as the NHS mental health apps
  • psychologists or counsellors
  • cancer charity helplines
  • complementary therapies such as massage, acupressure, reflexology, aromatherapy, yoga, art therapy

How looking after your mental wellbeing can help you

Try to keep in mind that a big part of what you’re feeling during this time is a normal response to a very stressful life experience. It is also a way of coming to terms with it.

Getting ready for treatment and focussing on your mental wellbeing before treatment starts will:

  • help you feel prepared
  • stop the feelings of anxiety or depression from getting worse 

There is research that shows that exercise and being physically more active can help with mental health symptoms. This includes anxiety and depression. So, it is important to increase your physical activity levels to improve both your physical and mental health.

Pre existing mental health problems

People with mental health problems often find it harder to cope when they have more stress. So, a cancer diagnosis and waiting to start treatment can cause you to struggle more. Getting support if you have a mental health problem while having cancer could:

  • better your chance of overcoming certain cancers
  • help with recovery from treatment
  • improve your quality of life
If you have a pre existing mental health problem, let the team who normally support you with it know. Tell them that you have been diagnosed with cancer. Also, discuss it with your team at the cancer hospital.

Finishing treatment

Many people with cancer also feel lost and worried once their treatment has finished. This is because they see their medical team less often. So, it is also important to seek support during this time if you’re not coping well.

For some people, struggling with their mental health is the hardest part of having cancer. It can affect them long term.

Talk to your GP or healthcare team if you are not coping well and need more support.

What you can do

1. Check out and make use of available resources

  • Visit your hospital support and information service. It is often a good place to start. They can tell you about local and national resources. Many give informal emotional support. If this is not available at your hospital, ask your specialist nurse or GP for more information. 
  • Join a patient support group for your cancer type. Many people find they benefit the most from peer support when dealing with cancer.

2. Think about how you coped in difficult situations before and use the same strategy

  • Use previous ways of coping. This can be painting, dancing, gardening or knitting. It can help to distract yourself or to express difficult emotions. 
  • Avoid habits that will make your mental health worse. For example, such as drinking too much alcohol or caffeine or staying up late and overworking. 

3. Reach out for support

  • Talk to someone you trust, such as a friend or relative. Many people find that talking about their difficult feelings makes them feel better. 
  • Talk to your GP or specialist nurse if you’re not coping. They can refer you to a counsellor or psychologist who can teach you ways to deal with stress. These include help with breathing, muscle relaxation, meditation, guided imagery, problem solving and ways of coping, hypnosis or mindfulness.

4. Be kind to yourself

  • Reflect on what you’re feeling and keep a diary of your experiences. Focus on the things you can control and change. 
  • Use NHS mental health apps to help with anxiety, depression or sleeping problems. Using apps can be a way of supporting yourself in difficult moments.

5. Treat exercise like your medication

  • Be physically active daily and exercise regularly to get the best possible outcomes.
  • Plan times of the day throughout the week when it will suit you best to exercise and when you are more likely to do it.

More information

NHS mental health apps

Learn more about mental health apps that can help you to manage your emotions, relax you and increase your emotional fitness.

Mind

You can learn more about types of mental health problems, self-care and treatments on the Mind mental health charity website.

Related links