Coping with Your Cancer Diagnosis: When to Seek Help

Coping with a cancer diagnosis can be an overwhelming experience, particularly the time before starting treatment. No one expects to hear they have cancer — symptoms are often attributed to other causes. Adjusting to your diagnosis is a process and there is not a right or wrong way to feel. There may be some bad days, days where you may feel sad, scared or worried. It is important to realize that these emotional reactions are normal and experienced by many patients as they move through treatment and recovery.

When to Seek Help

Sometimes, the stress of the experience can lead to intensely distressing emotions that require professional attention. Some patients, as well as their spouses or partners, can experience periods of sadness or irritability, loss of interest in previously enjoyed activities, hopelessness about the future, or changes in sleep or appetite patterns. You may also experience feelings of anxiety that may or may not be triggered by upsetting aspects of treatment. Again, these responses are not surprising given the difficult and often invasive nature of cancer treatments.

One question that is often asked is when to seek help for emotional issues that are interfering in some way with your life. While there are no hard and fast rules that apply to everyone, you should talk to your health care provider about getting some additional help if you are experiencing distress that:

  • lasts two weeks or more, or
  • interferes with your ability to do key tasks at home or work, or
  • interferes substantially with your relationships

If you are hospitalized, there are several warning signs that might signal that additional support is needed, such as:

  • withdrawal from family and friends
  • persistent refusal of visitors
  • consistent refusal to participate in physical and occupational therapy
  • sad or anxious mood that lasts for more than a week
  • suicidal thoughts

Occasional refusal of physical therapy or of visitors is not a problem, but consistent isolation can be a sign of depression. Other warning signs include feelings of panic, intense anxiety, or constant crying. If you think you might need professional help, talk with your doctor or nurse.