Coping With Emotions

When Hearing Cancer, Shock Is a Common, Temporary Response

Many people go through some level of shock upon hearing that they have cancer or that cancer has come back. This feeling is generally temporary, and there are ways to cope with the sudden rush of news and emotions.

Hearing “you have cancer” or “your cancer has returned” from your doctor is a shocking experience. People respond in different ways, but those words are devastating, especially when you’re feeling healthy. Thus, after a diagnosis of cancer, shock is a common response. It’s your body’s way of giving you time to process what’s happening and prepare for what’s to come.

What Is Shock?

Shock goes along with an emotionally traumatic event, such as a diagnosis of cancer, that leaves you feeling vulnerable or powerless. After hearing the word “cancer,” everything else may sound like Charlie Brown’s teacher talking. It’s normal to feel numb or disoriented at first and to have trouble absorbing new information, according to Cancer Research UK. You may also have mood swings, fatigue or trouble sleeping. Cascade Behavioral Health cites additional symptoms including irritability, panic attacks and overwhelming fear.

These feelings can last a few hours, a few days or even weeks. In her book, “AfterShock: What to Do When the Doctor Gives You–or Someone You Love–a Devastating Diagnosis,” Dr. Jessie Gruman, an advocate and cancer patient, says many people feel as though they will always feel this way, full of the fear, confusion and anxiety that comes on immediately after a diagnosis. Many people feel a sense of loss, as though their dreams have been taken from them. These feelings are normal, but she assures you it gets better.

How to Cope

Shock, including cancer shock, is typically short-term, lasting a few days or weeks after the diagnosis. Although there are exceptions, most people don’t have to make treatment decisions right away. Go home, rest and spend time with your family. You may have the urge to “fix” your problem right away, but slowing down is fine.

Don’t Rush

Your diagnosis is your business. You may feel like talking about it a lot, or you may not be ready to talk at all yet. Both responses are OK. Tell those you need to tell or feel comfortable telling about your diagnosis and hold off on talking to more people than you feel ready to handle. Have your spouse or a family member share the news with those you feel should be notified right away.

Take Care of Yourself

Sleep and eat. The mix of cancer, shock and the sudden news can also make you feel physically sick, with a headache or stomachache. Avoiding food won’t help, so eat at least a little even if you don’t feel like it. Your sleep habits may also be messed up from shock, but try a soothing routine of chamomile tea, warm milk or a soothing bath to settle and fall asleep.

Study Up

When you feel you’re able to begin processing more information, start educating yourself. Dr. Gruman recommends learning at least the basics of your disease so that you can actively participate in your treatment decisions. At a minimum, you need to know the full name of your disease, the stage and treatment options. You don’t need to gather all the information at once, though. Ask your doctor what you need to know right now, and take it slow. If you look online for information, use reputable sources (those ending in .gov or .org or belonging to major medical centers). This is overwhelming, so take a buddy with you to appointments to help you take notes.

If the feelings persist and are preventing you from being able to move forward with your medical care, you may have a more severe issue, such as post-traumatic stress disorder or depression. Don’t be afraid to reach out to your medical team for support.

UVA Cancer Center has counselors and support groups available to help you deal with the emotions that go along with cancer.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney