Mental health when you are diagnosed with cancer (Quick Guide)

This page is a quick guide to help you understand how a cancer diagnosis might affect your mental health. We listened to the experiences and gathered advice of people who've had cancer and struggled with their mental health. We used their feedback to help shape and develop the information on this page.

Mental health and cancer - quick guide

‘All the leaflets you get when diagnosed the first time should focus on your mental health and emotional needs.'

Feeling overwhelmed and out of control is common when you are first diagnosed with cancer. There is a lot of new information to take in and understand. You might experience a lot of different emotions. Some people become emotional more often – especially if someone mentions cancer. You might feel:

  • shocked
  • numb
  • angry

Or you might experience thoughts such as disbelief and ask, ‘why me?’

Many people feel anxious about:

  • starting treatment
  • what will happen in the future
  • what the impact might be on their loved ones
We want you to know when and where to find help. It is often difficult to take information in when you are first diagnosed. But, when you are ready, the information is here, and you can return to it anytime. You might feel you don’t need mental health information now. But being aware of what might happen and where you can get support can be reassuring and helpful in the future.

1. How can a cancer diagnosis affect my mental health?

‘I was in shock when I got my diagnosis, I just kept thinking, how do I tell my family? How do I tell them? I went for a cup of tea and had a think, but all that kept going round in my head was you've got cancer.’

A cancer diagnosis can affect your mental health at any time, including when your treatment has finished. People react in different ways to a cancer diagnosis and find their own unique ways to cope.

Coming to terms with a very stressful life experience is difficult. It is not always a straightforward path. There is no right or wrong way to feel or be.

You may find that your emotions are very up and down. It is normal to have moments, sometimes days, of feeling angry and sad. Allow yourself to feel these feelings. Doing so will relieve you from the expectations to always be positive. These difficult moments will come and go.

You may:

  • have a feeling of loss. For some people, it can feel like grief for the plans they had for their life or what they thought their life would be
  • feel low, worried and panicked. If these feelings last for a long time and start to affect your day-to-day life, you may be suffering from an episode of depression or anxiety
  • find it more difficult to do your day-to-day activities
  • find focusing and concentrating difficult
  • feel tearful
  • feel angry
  • feel frightened
  • have sleeping problems because you feel anxious or have nightmares
  • feel more vulnerable and not as strong (resilient) as before
  • feel out of control
These feelings are all normal responses. They vary in intensity from person to person. For some people, they might not happen as much once they have adjusted to their diagnosis. Or they might stay at a level where you can manage yourself. Others may find they need extra help and support, which is OK.

If you have an existing mental health problem

These feelings might feel more intense if you have an existing mental health problem. Or it might make the symptoms of your mental health problem feel worse.

You should let your cancer team know about any mental health problems you are experiencing. They can then discuss your support options with you.

If you have a mental health team, let them know about your cancer diagnosis. If you've received information from your mental health team in the past, review it again. It can be helpful to remind yourself what helped before.

Getting support can help you cope and maintain your quality of life.

The mental health charity Mind has more information on mental health problems. This includes treatment and self-care information.

2. When should I ask for mental health support?

‘I experienced numbness. It took me one, to one and a half years before I could take it in emotionally. I managed it myself, but it was not good for my mental health – it doesn’t work if you try to do it yourself, it has to come out somehow.’

You can ask for mental health support at any time. You don’t have to wait until you feel really bad to ask for help.

Thereare different types of support available. The type you need will depend on lots of things. This includes how you are feeling and what sort of support you feel you need at the moment. To start the process of getting support, you might consider: 

  • Telling your cancer team about your mental wellbeing
  • Telling a mental health professional about your cancer
  • Talking to somoene you trust

Telling your cancer team about your mental health

We know this isn’t easy. The focus is often on the physical symptoms of cancer. Healthcare professionals might not ask you about your mental health. So you may need to take that first step. Healthcare professionals are trained at discussing these matters and can signpost you.

Mind has some information on how to talk to a healthcare professional about your mental health.

Telling a mental health professional about your cancer

If you are currently seeing a therapist or are in other treatment for mental health, telling them about your cancer diagnosis can be helpful. They can work with you to adapt the support to this new challenge and signpost you to other services if needed.

Talking to someone you trust

This could be a friend, family member, or someone close to you. Letting the people close to you know how you feel can be very helpful to you and them. Knowing how you feel can help them to support you better.

It might feel like your cancer diagnosis is the most important thing right now. But it is OK to need mental health support at the same time and to form links with services that can support you.

3. Where can I find mental health support?

‘This was a very low point for me, but support helped me. If it wasn’t for the expert support that I had I wouldn’t be here.’

People vary in the support that they might need. There are lots of different types of mental health support. Some types of support might look mostly at your mental health. Other types might look at your mental health and cancer together. You can find information on the different support available to you from a few different sources.

Your cancer team

They may be able to refer you for mental health support available in your area. This could be for things like talking therapy or support groups.

Cancer charities

Cancer charities may have their own support groups or resources that help people with a specific type of cancer.

Mental health charities

Charities like Mind or Rethink have information on the different types of mental health support available.

The NHS

They have information on the different types of NHS mental health support, such as talking therapy and crisis services.

Local organisations

This could include support groups or religious groups. They might run their own support services for people from a specific background or religion.

It can be helpful to try and look after your mental health in more than one way. So, try a few different things and see what works for you.

We have more information on the above organisations.

With special thanks to Mind for their expert knowledge during the development of this information.

What else can I do to help myself?

You might feel worried and overwhelmed when you’re first diagnosed with cancer. But there are things you can do to help you feel more in control of your physical and mental health during this time.

Knowing more about your cancer and the treatment you need can help you know what to expect. This can help you to cope. 

And, getting ready for treatment and focusing on your mental well-being before treatment starts can:

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

Coping with uncertainty

Preparing yourself for the uncertainty you might experience with a cancer diagnosis is also important. You and your medical team might not know the complete details of your diagnosis and how you will respond to treatment.

Some people cope with this uncertainty and the loss of control by focusing on taking it ‘one day at a time’. Finding a balance between preparation and accepting what is outside your control can also be helpful.

Cancer is a difficult topic to talk about. You might have doubts or concerns about talking to your kids about a cancer diagnosis. It is not easy to decide what or when to tell them. We have information about talking to children.

Last reviewed: 
31 Oct 2022
Next review due: 
31 Oct 2022
  • Depression and anxiety among people living with and beyond cancer: a growing clinical and research priority

    C Niedzwiedz and others

    BMC Cancer,  2019. Volume 19, Issue 1, Page 943

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