How do I mentally prepare for cancer treatment?

You can help yourself to get ready for cancer treatment by looking after your mental health. It is common to struggle with your mental health. This can happen at any time during your cancer experience. It might be at diagnosis, during treatment or once treatment has finished.

Focussing on your mental health, in whatever time you have before treatment starts, is one part of prehabilitation.

What is prehabilitation?

Prehabilitation is a programme of advice and support that some NHS hospitals use. It covers three particular parts of your health:

  • what you are eating and your weight

  • physical activity or exercise

  • mental wellbeing

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. It is for anyone affected by cancer. The video is one and a half minutes long.

How can a cancer diagnosis affect my mental health?

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 at diagnosis. It might also start when treatment ends and 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.

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 health before treatment starts will:

  • help you feel prepared

  • stop the feelings of anxiety or depression from getting worse

Research shows that exercise and being physically active can also help your mental health.

If you have a mental health problem

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 can:

  • better your chance of overcoming certain cancers

  • help with recovery from treatment

  • improve your quality of life

If you have a mental health team who normally supports you, let them know about your cancer diagnosis. Also, discuss it with your team at the cancer hospital.

Coping and support

What support you might need with your mental health at the time of diagnosis will depend on your circumstances and needs.

Coping with uncertainty

Preparing yourself for the uncertainty you might experience with a cancer diagnosis is 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 acceptance of what is outside your control can also be helpful.


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

  • information and support centres at hospitals such as 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

  • psychologists or counsellors

  • cancer charity helplines

  • complementary therapies such as massage, acupressure, reflexology, aromatherapy, yoga, art therapy

What you can do

There are small steps you can take to improve your mental health.

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.

  • 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, drinking too much alcohol or caffeine, 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, 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 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 self guides and tools

Find free self help guides, tools and activities that can improve your mental health. 


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

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