Cancer and psychology: how to manage receiving the news

Written by: Dr Sue Peacock
Edited by: Cal Murphy

Cancer patients not only have to deal with a life-threatening illness, but also the psychological effects of knowing they have cancer. Top psychologist Dr Sue Peacock explains the impact it has on their mental wellbeing and gives some top tips on how to deal with these feelings to take back control of your life.

Nothing can hit you quite like the news that you have a serious illness. Finding out that you have cancer can cause fear, anxiety, depression and grief, and can feel overwhelming. Your life has been turned upside down and inside out, and will continue to be shaken up with each new CT scan, lab result, treatment and side-effect. Some patients feel as though their whole identity has been shattered.

The cancer patients that I see often have unmanageable, fearful thoughts that lead to anxiety and all the problems that come with it.

Anxiety is a psychological condition in which feelings of fear, unease and worry can manifest as physical symptoms:

  • Shallow breathing
  • Increased muscle tension
  • Tiredness
  • Less energy
  • Difficulty sleeping

These symptoms can often make the anxiety worse, which causes the whole thing to go round in a vicious circle.

They key is to learn to manage anxiety, thereby controlling its effects on your wellbeing. Here are some top tips that can be effective in stopping anxiety controlling your life:



  1. Give yourself time

When patients receive a cancer diagnosis, often their initial reaction is to try to do something about it immediately. My advice: put the brakes on for a moment. Take some time. Go through what the doctor told you; what tests you need; treatment options. Thinking about it, talking about it, and writing things down are all helpful ways to process and understand your diagnosis and the best way forward.


  1. Get all the information you can

Write down any and all questions you think of and discuss them with your doctor. Discuss them with family and friends too.


  1. Stay organised

You may receive a lot of information about your diagnosis and treatment options, and along with prescriptions, appointments, test results, and other resources, this can add up to a lot of paperwork. Keeping this organised in a folder can help give you a sense of control at a time when you’re feeling like you have none.


  1. Triangle breathing

This technique can help you beat an anxiety attack. Draw a triangle and write “I” on “E”, and “P” on each of the three sides. Take a deep breath while looking at the “I” and think “inhale”. Exhale slowly while looking at the “E”. Pause while looking at the “P” and count 1, 2, 3, 4. Then repeat.


  1. Catching anxious thoughts

Anxious thoughts have a tendency to lead from one to another, multiplying and snowballing until we feel overwhelmed. The trick is to catch them early. Write down your thoughts to identify the one that started the chain reaction. Then try to replace it with a less anxious one. Go through the list, substituting worrying ideas with new thoughts that are confident and empowering.


  1. Relaxation and visualisation

There are many options to help you relax, from breathing exercises to hypnosis.


  1. Don’t give into “What if” thoughts

If you find yourself thinking “What if the cancer has spread?” or “What if I can’t look after myself?” ask yourself: is this thought helping me or hurting me? Is it helping me move forward or holding me back? “What if” thoughts lead from one to another and spiral into anxiety. Don’t play the game!


  1. Restore calm

What would make you feel better at that moment? A cup of tea? Another pillow? Music? Phoning a friend? Make yourself comfortable to restore calm.


  1. Focus on making choices

Choosing to do things is empowering and makes you feel in control. Say “I am choosing to…” instead of “I have to” or “I should”.


  1. Distraction

Distract yourself from the source of your anxiety. This could be simply visualising your favourite place, thinking about the colours, smells, textures and noises. Visualisation takes practice, so memorise details about this place before you have to use it to control your anxiety.


  1. Ground yourself

When an anxiety attack occurs, look around you. What can you see right now? What colour are the walls and floor? How many tables are there? Focussing on these things interrupts a chain of anxious thoughts and grounds you to stop anxiety spinning out of control.


  1. I can’t handle this…

Yes, you can! Focus on the next five minutes. You can handle anything by taking it five minutes at a time.


  1. Zooming in and out

Look at things from different perspectives. How do you fit in the big picture with your friends, family, community, and life in general?


  1. Thought breaks

How long can you let your mind go blank for, not thinking any thought? This tool can help to let your mind rest.


  1. Journaling

Writing down your thoughts and feelings can help you to deal with them, as can reading them back in the future.

By Dr Sue Peacock

Dr Sue Peacock is a consultant health psychologist based in Bedford and Milton Keynes, who focuses on improving people’s ability to manage their chronic pain and adjust to the different circumstances and challenges faced every day. Dr Peacock’s ultimate aim is that her patients lead fulfilling lives despite having health conditions.

Dr Peacock has a PhD in psychology, is registered as an advanced hypnotherapy practitioner, an Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR) practitioner and has diplomas in Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP) and life coaching.

She uses a variety of psychological principles and theories in her clinical practice, drawn from her broad knowledge base of various different therapeutic techniques and approaches. Dr Peacock tailors an approach to each individual patient and considers how life experiences affect each person, taking into consideration how a person views themselves, how they think, feel, behave towards others and live within their relationships and everyday life.

She uses this to highlight the best way forward for that person and breaks the cycles of unhappiness or distress that a patient feels trapped in.

HCPC: Ps/L 18083

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