Understanding the Emotional Stages of a Cancer Diagnosis

By Rohini Mankar | 24th Aug 2023

Understanding the Emotional Stages of a Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis can influence a person’s emotional health, family, and support system. People experience fear, anxiety, sadness, anger and shaken. It’s all right to feel diverse emotions when facing a cancer diagnosis.

The World Health Organization (WHO) states that cancer is one of the most prevailing conditions globally. There are over 100 types of cancer. The approximate number of cancer incident cases in India for the year 2022 was found to be 14,61,427 (crude rate:100.4 per 100,000). In India, one out of every nine people will have cancer during their lifetime. Lung and breast cancers were the most commonly diagnosed cancer sites in men and women, respectively.

Cancer emotional causes have been a topic of interest for many researchers and health professionals. Emotional and physical health should be the top priority for cancer patients. According to studies, managing cancer patients’ mental health issues may enhance treatment results and quality of life. 

This article addresses the five emotional stages of cancer and how to cope with and support a loved one.

Common Response to news

You may feel swept off your feet after getting a cancer diagnosis. The varying emotions you feel can change daily or even hourly. Receiving a cancer diagnosis can be devastating for anyone, but one essential way to cope is to have adequate knowledge. Many people know about cancer, but there are instances when information may be just a myth or a rumour. 

Emotions and cancer

For patients, cancer emotional causes a significant impact on their therapy, quality of life, and overall health results. Though no two individuals will experience the same emotions when faced with a cancer diagnosis, typical responses to a cancer diagnosis include the following: 

  • Anger 
  • Anxiety
  • Disbelief 
  • Fear 
  • Guilt 
  • Hope 
  • Loneliness  
  • Overwhelm 
  • Sadness 
  • Stress 
  • Worry 

Emotional Stages

Cancer emotional causes negative stress, which weakens the immune system and disrupts hormonal balance, which can increase the risk of cancer. There is a visible range of emotions in cancer patients. It is at the time of diagnosis and any time of their cancer treatment. You may feel miserable due to the following reasons. 

  • Loss of your good health 
  • Trying hard to cope with changes in your appearance
  • Feel remorse over the consequences your diagnosis has on your family
  • Being concerned about the future 

Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, a psychiatrist, developed the five stages of grief in 1969—often known as DABDA.

DABDA stands for 

  • Denial 
  • Anger 
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

These stages may represent the emotions you experience during cancer treatment.

The DABDA model is instrumental in describing people’s emotional responses when faced with a life-altering illness or situation.

Despite the widespread belief that these stages develop one after the other, these feelings can appear at any moment and in any order on learning about a cancer diagnosis. While the exact mechanisms behind these cancer emotional causes are not fully understood, it is clear that taking care of one’s emotional well-being can significantly impact overall health and may help prevent cancer.

1. Denial

Cancer is a life-altering event. People go into denial, and it is a typical emotion for people with cancer. A cancer diagnosis can be a shattering experience. You may not be able to understand all the information you are given. You may find that you keep asking the same questions. The distress may bring about feelings of disbelief, numbness, or shock. You might want to remain in denial or act as if it isn’t happening. Denial will disappear with time, and you will begin to feel other emotions about the diagnosis. 

2. Anger 

One of the typical emotions of a cancer patient is anger. Anger can be a vital component of the emotional process following a cancer diagnosis. “Why me?” is a frequent question people ask after a cancer diagnosis. In particular, if the cancer is detected late, you might feel angry with your loved ones or friends, medical experts, the general public, or even yourself. It makes a way to express your extreme emotions, like anxiety, fear, frustration, and helplessness, rather than holding it all in. 

A person diagnosed with cancer may find it instrumental in discussing anger with a trusted family member or friend. A person may blame others out of anger while their rational brain knows the objective of their anger isn’t to blame; their feelings at that moment are too extreme.

3. Bargaining 

In the bargaining stage, people may feel like their diagnosis is unjust. They would want to do anything and everything to “fix” it and return to life like before the diagnosis. It’s normal to try to take back control or to want to believe that you can influence how an event turns out. You might make many “what if” and “if only” statements during the bargaining period after a cancer diagnosis. If you have faith in God, you may bargain with the almighty or yourself to gain control over the situation and ponder things like, “If I make it through this, I will never again make a fuss about anything.”

If you are in a situation where you are stuck in a never-ending loop of bargaining, it may be helpful to talk about your emotions with a counsellor or with peers in a cancer support group. 

4. Depression

Depression is a mental health condition involving constant sadness and loss of interest in activities a person loves. Depression can alter sleeping and eating habits, concentration, and self-esteem.

Depression impacts the life of 1 in 4 people with cancer. According to studies, patients with cancer who undergo treatment for depression have better outcomes from cancer therapies and better quality of life. If feelings of loneliness and sadness persist for over two weeks, talk to your healthcare provider. They may suggest therapies to help overcome your depression, such as medication and counselling.

5. Cancer Acceptance 

The acceptance stage is when you have mentally acknowledged the diagnosis and condition.

A person experiences two types of acceptance, negative and positive. Negative acceptance is embracing your disease by giving up and visualising that you will die. In all likelihood, depression occurs in such patients. Besides, positive acceptance is when you accept that you have been detected with cancer, put your efforts into fighting it, and remain optimistic. Positivity can improve the likelihood of survival as optimism is correlated to reducing stress, regulating blood pressure and improving relationships. 

Positive acceptance gives hope to survive and makes it easy to courageously face the new phase of life. Though no pointers suggest that a positive attitude can enhance cancer treatment outcomes, staying optimistic still has advantages. 

6. Cancer Prognosis

A cancer prognosis is the best estimate your healthcare providers will provide concerning how well your cancer will respond to treatment, its impact on you, and your survival rate. The type and stage of cancer, the position of cancer in the body, age, and how healthy a person is before diagnosis all play a vital role in the prognosis.

It’s essential to consider that a prognosis is a type of forecast done by the oncologist(cancer specialist) and not an accurate prediction.

Cancer’s emotional causes impact on Mental Health 

A cancer diagnosis can impact the mental health and well-being of cancer patients, their families, and their caregivers. 

1. Depression

Life of cancer patients changes significantly. They experience extreme sadness and are distressed about their life before diagnosis. People may feel tired and experience a loss of appetite. Sometimes, it’s challenging to complete everyday tasks with a cancer patient. It is natural to take time to analyse your emotions and adapt to your new lifestyle. Specific cancer treatments may alter your hormones and raise your risk of developing sadness. 

If a person is diagnosed with cancer, they feel devastated and long for emotional support. Receiving support from family and friends, as well as entering a cancer support group, may assist you in addressing your emotions. If your depression symptoms continue, speak with your healthcare provider about treatment choices such as medication and counselling.

2. Anxiety

Up to 45% of cancer patient experience anxiety. Anxiety is feeling worried, afraid, tense, and paranoid. Physical symptoms include a fast heart rate, poor appetite, nausea, dizziness, headaches, muscle pain, chest pain, or altered sleep patterns.

Feeling anxious when you or your loved one faces cancer is entirely normal. If you’re feeling anxious, it’s essential to recognise this feeling and take the steps required to cope with your feelings. 

Studies suggest that mindfulness-based activities (e.g., meditation and breathwork) reduce anxiety and depression in adults with cancer. Your doctor may suggest antianxiety medications and talk therapy to help manage anxiety.

How to get through cancer’s emotional stages

Cancer emotional causes are becoming increasingly recognised as an essential factor in developing and managing cancer. Managing cancer and the associated emotional toll is essential. While people cope with their emotions in several other ways, you may find these strategies for coping helpful:

  • Recognise and be open about what you’re experiencing.
  • Discuss your emotions with a trustworthy loved one.
  • Seek out a community, such as a cancer support group.  
  • Eat a balanced, nutritious diet. 
  • Get enough rest. 
  • Participate in physical activity (e.g., walking, swimming). 
  • Try relaxation techniques like meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, or yoga. 
  • Write your feelings down in a journal. 
  • Look for small cheerful experiences with a pet, friends, or an independent activity that brings joy to you. 
  • Talk to your healthcare providers if the feelings of depression and anxiety remain.

How to support cancer patients

If a family member or a friend has been confirmed to have cancer, you may be considering how to support them. Here are some suggestions for helping a loved one who is battling cancer:

  • Hear them out: Ask how they’re feeling and provide a listening ear.
  • Offer to assist: Whether it is cooking meals, doing their laundry, or providing conveyance to their hospital appointments, helping with routine tasks is often appreciated.
  • Treat them just as before: It would be great to treat your loved one just the way you had before the cancer diagnosis, which would comfort them.
  • Give them a break: Cancer patients often need a break from talking about everything cancer-related. Share interesting stories and some laughs, or sit together for a cosy movie night. 
  • Educate yourself about cancer: Understanding your loved one’s cancer type and treatment options is a means to express your concern.
  • Be there: Stay persistent in your relationship—visit your loved ones, call them or text them to let them know you’re there for them. 

Make time for self-care if you are a caretaker because being there for a loved one who has cancer can be physically and emotionally taxing. Taking care of your needs can give you the strength to continue providing support. Addressing cancer emotional causes and promoting healthy coping mechanisms can help prevent cancer and support cancer treatment. 

When to See a Healthcare Provider

Talk to your healthcare team for mental health support. If your emotions affect your day-to-day life or last a long time, your cancer care team can help. Your oncologist may refer you to a counsellor who can help you learn how to manage with diagnosis. The healthcare provider may also prescribe medication, such as antidepressants or antianxiety. 


A person getting diagnosed with cancer is an emotionally devastating feeling that results in denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and ultimately acceptance. However, the emotional journey is not similar for everyone, and not everyone experiences all of these emotions.

Nevertheless, getting a cancer prognosis or finding out a loved one has cancer can increase feelings of sadness, worry, and hopelessness. It’s normal and acceptable to feel depressed, but if you or a loved one is trying to cope with these feelings for an extended period, it doesn’t harm to seek support.

In summary, recognising the role of cancer emotional causes is crucial in preventing and treating cancer. Coping with a cancer prognosis can be emotionally draining for both the caregiver and the cancer patient. Allow the cancer patient to openly and honestly recognise and express their feelings.

One of the most important things you can do for yourself as you manage your cancer journey is to seek mental health assistance. There is no shame in asking for aid; even the most robust and resilient people require assistance. Consult your healthcare provider if your emotional health interferes with your everyday life.

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Frequently Asked Question

How do you deal with emotions after a cancer diagnosis?

Several ways may help to deal with extreme emotions after a cancer diagnosis, such as practising ways to relax, Sharing your feelings honestly with family, friends, or a counsellor, writing a journal to help organise your thoughts, making an informed decision by weighing the pros and cons of each choice and finding a source of spiritual support.

What are the emotional stages of a cancer patient?

At any stage after a cancer diagnosis, you may face distress and feel extreme emotions, such as shock, fear, anxiety, anger, loneliness and sadness.

How do you emotionally support a cancer patient?

Listen to your loved one, do what works, ask questions, get information about support groups, support your loved one’s treatment decisions, and continue your support when treatment is over.

Can emotional distress be alleviated in a cancer patient?

Cognitive behavioural therapy is an approach that helps manage anxiety and distress in cancer survivors. Psychotherapy includes mindfulness-based stress reduction, self-management, exercise, and in some cases, antianxiety or antidepressant medications are given.

Disclaimer: This content, including advice and medicines, provides generic information only. It is in no way a substitute for a qualified medical opinion. Always consult a specialist or your doctor for more details.



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