Coping with advanced cancer

Advanced cancer usually means your cancer can't be cured. But your doctor may suggest treatment to try to slow its growth and relieve symptoms.

Talk to your specialist to understand:

  • what the diagnosis means for you
  • what treatment is available
  • how treatment may help you

You are likely to feel very uncertain and anxious about the future. You may find it impossible to think about anything other than having cancer.

Some people say a diagnosis of advanced cancer helps them appreciate ordinary everyday things much more than they did.

You will need to work out your priorities. Think about how you want to spend your time - what is important to you and what is not.

Some of your future plans may no longer be realistic but you do not have to abandon them all. You may be able to adapt some. And you may get round to doing something you have always wanted to do, but were not able to make time for.

Your feelings

Finding out that you have advanced cancer when you are diagnosed, or that your cancer has come back, can be devastating. You may feel shocked and confused, and find it difficult to take in anything that is being said to you.

You are likely to feel a range of powerful emotions at first. Anger, fear, and sadness may come one on top of the other, leaving you exhausted.

You may think you should be talking all this through with your partner, other family members or close friends. But you may find this really hard to do.

There is no set way of handling all this. You may need to try to put your own thoughts in order before talking to anyone else.

You may want to talk to someone straight away to help you work out how you are feeling. You should do whatever feels right for you.

You may find yourself wondering why you have cancer or if you could have prevented your illness. These questions are very common amongst people with cancer. Many people blame themselves for no real reason.

We do not know why some people get particular cancers and others who behave the same way (or worse) do not. This uncertainty can be very difficult to deal with. You may feel you have to know why you have cancer. But that may not be possible.

You can get support both emotionally and practically through your hospital, local hospice and GP practice, as well as charities and support groups.

Coping with everyday life

It is important that you feel as well as you possibly can. If you have symptoms, ask your doctor or nurse about a referral to a symptom control nurse (sometimes called a Macmillan nurse or palliative care nurse).

A specialist nurse can work with you and your doctor to help control your cancer symptoms and improve your physical well being.

Many have counselling training and can help you and your carers work through some of your emotions.

If you are having any physical difficulties in coping at home your specialist nurse or a district nurse can talk to you about ways you may cope more easily.

Physical problems

Pancreatic cancer and its treatment may cause physical changes in your body. You might have jaundice Open a glossary item and may have lost weight.

Jaundice can cause itching and very dry skin. You may have to make changes to your diet. You may also have to cope with feeling very tired and lacking in energy a lot of the time.

These changes can be very difficult to cope with and may affect the way you feel about yourself. Such changes can affect your self esteem and the way you relate to close family and friends.

Coping financially

Your specialist nurse or GP should be able to help you get grants for heating costs, holidays and other household expenses related to your illness. They can also help you to claim benefits for yourself or for the person caring for you. 

It may be helpful to see a social worker. Many hospital cancer departments have a social worker available for patients.

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.

You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses if you have questions or want to talk about coping with advanced cancer. Call free on 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.