Coping with cancer of unknown primary

Coping with cancer of unknown primary (CUP) can be difficult. You may find you have a lot of different feelings. There is help and support available. There are things you can do, people who can help and ways to cope with a diagnosis of CUP.

Everyone reacts in their own way. Sometimes it's hard to take in the fact that you have cancer at all.

Your feelings

You might have a number of different feelings when you're told you have cancer. You may feel shocked and upset. You might also feel:

  • numb
  • frightened and uncertain
  • confused
  • angry and resentful
  • guilty

You may have some or all of these feelings. Or you might feel totally different. Everyone reacts in their own way. Sometimes it's hard to take in the fact that you have cancer at all.

Experiencing different feelings is a natural part of coming to terms with cancer. All sorts of feelings are likely to come and go.

It can be particularly difficult to cope with a diagnosis of CUP. Some people say they feel like they are fighting an invisible enemy. Some people feel let down that despite all the tests the primary cancer can’t be found.

You also have to come to terms with your cancer being advanced and unlikely to be cured. No one can say for how long your treatment will keep the cancer under control. That in itself can be very hard to deal with. Your doctor and specialist nurse will help support you with this.

Helping yourself

You may be more able to cope and make decisions if you have information about your type of cancer and its treatment. Information helps you to know what to expect.

Taking in information can be difficult, especially when you have just been diagnosed. Make a list of questions before you see your doctor. Take someone with you to remind you what you want to ask. They can also help you to remember the information that was given. Getting a lot of new information can feel overwhelming.

Ask your doctors and nurses to explain things again if you need them to.

Remember that you don’t have to sort everything out at once. It might take some time to deal with each issue. Ask for help if you need it.

Talking to other people

Talking to your friends and relatives about your cancer can help and support you. But some people are scared of the emotions this could bring up and won’t want to talk. They might worry that you won't be able to cope with your situation.

It can strain relationships if your family or friends don't want to talk. But talking can help increase trust and support between you and them.

Help your family and friends by letting them know if you would like to talk about what’s happening and how you feel.

You might find it easier to talk to someone outside your own friends and family. For example your specialist nurse, or other people in a similar situation to you. You could join a support group, or contact one of the CUP charities.

Cancer chat

You can chat with other people affected by cancer in our online forum. 

Specialist nurses

Specialist nurses can help you if you’re finding it difficult to cope or if you have any problems. They can get you the help you need. They can also give you information.

Cancer Research UK nurses

For support and information, you can call the Cancer Research UK information nurses. They can give advice about who can help you and what kind of support is available. Freephone: 0808 800 4040 - Monday to Friday, 9am to 5pm.

Physical changes

CUP is likely to cause physical changes in your body. These changes will depend on where the cancer is in your body. Some changes may be as a result of treatment such as chemotherapy, surgery or radiotherapy. Your doctor or specialist nurse will help you manage any changes. They can refer you to other health professionals if needed, such as dietitians and the symptom control team.


You may feel very tired or lethargic a lot of the time, especially if you are having treatment.

Weight loss

The side effects of CUP and its treatment can make it difficult to eat enough to stay at a healthy weight. This can be very upsetting and worrying.

Speak to your clinical nurse specialist or dietician about any eating problems. 

Sex and relationships

The physical and emotional changes you have might affect your relationships and sex life. There are things that you can do to manage this.

Coping practically

You and your family might need to cope with practical things including:

  • money matters
  • financial support, such as benefits, sick pay and grants
  • work issues
  • childcare

Talk to your doctor or specialist nurse to find out who can help. Getting help early with these things can mean that they don’t become a big issue later.

Our coping practically section has more information about all these issues. 

Spiritual support

Some people find great comfort in religion. You might find it helpful to talk to:

  • a local minister
  • a hospital chaplain
  • a religious leader of your faith

Support groups

You may find it helpful to go to a charity or support group to talk to other people affected by cancer.

Towards the end of life

It’s natural to want to find out what is likely to happen in the last few weeks or days of life.

You might need to choose where you want to be looked after and who you want to care for you.

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