How to Manage Mental Health When Living With Cancer

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With cancer, your feelings may change from day to day, or even minute to minute. All of your emotions are natural and completely understandable. When trying to come to terms with a cancer diagnosis, there’s no right or wrong way to feel. There’s also no timeline for when you should experience certain emotions, nor a set order you should follow; your feelings aren’t a checklist.

Likewise, you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to choosing how you want to cope. Though it may be tempting to try to ignore your feelings, research shows that finding healthy coping mechanisms can boost your mental and physical health during cancer treatment. That said, everyone deals with their feelings in their own way. Some unload them through activity, while others manage best by talking about them. Some strategies you may consider:

Make mindfulness a habit

Deep breathing, yoga, meditation, and progressive muscle relaxation are all mindfulness tools that can reduce stress and improve outlook after being diagnosed with cancer. Mindfulness has also been found to help manage distressing symptoms during treatment, as it emphasizes being in the present moment, not dwelling on past regrets or worrying about what’s to come.

Cultivate awareness 

Pay attention to and identify emotions as they arise—notice if specific people or situations consistently make you feel certain ways. Try to address the circumstances that trigger distressing emotions, whether it’s asking for a different nurse to administer your chemotherapy treatment or scheduling your appointments for earlier in the day, when you are less likely to feel fatigued (and therefore easily frustrated). On the opposite side of the coin, if there are certain friends, loved ones, or activities that make you feel good, book them into your calendar or simply make a practice of keeping them top-of-mind for moments when you need a pick-me-up.


Whether you go for a relaxing walk or take your frustrations out on a punching bag, exercise can benefit the mind just as much as the body. Research shows that physical activity can reduce depression and anxiety during and after treatment.

Be real

This is not the time to pretend everything is okay. Acknowledging and expressing emotions, especially distressing ones, are important components of mental health. Find comfort and relief by communicating with family and friends who will be supportive, validating, and empathetic. Let them know when something is upsetting you, and talk through it out loud.

Seek support 

You don’t have to be in major distress to call in the pros. Therapy and support groups are an option for all people with cancer—even those who are feeling just fine. A variety of options are available, from in-person meetings to online telehealth appointments and therapy apps for your smartphone.

“Do you” every day 

Schedule a small amount of time each day for something that brings you joy, whether it’s doing the crossword puzzle in the newspaper in the morning or taking a warm bath before bed. 

Emotions and mental states related to cancer are different for each person, and they can come and go. But if you experience any concerning thoughts, feelings, or behaviors lasting for more than two weeks, talk with your healthcare team. Things to look for can include, but are not limited to:

  • Having repeated anxious, frightening or unwanted thoughts (if these include suicide or self-harm; NAMI is a top resource)
  • Feeling easily distracted or having difficulty focusing
  • Having trouble sleeping
  • Feeling detached from yourself or reality
  • Having strong feelings of guilt, hopelessness, or shame
  • Having continuous feelings of fear or anger
  • Experiencing a loss of interest in activities and relationships that used to be enjoyable
  • Experiencing changes in appetite
  • Engaging in self-destructive behavior, such as drug or alcohol abuse
  • Having difficulty feeling emotions

One in three people with cancer experience mental or emotional distress, and researchers have found that patients dealing with cancer may have symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD, from diagnosis through treatment, after treatment is complete, or during possible recurrence of cancer.

Don’t stay silent! Letting someone know how you are feeling is not a weakness. Neither is asking for help. Talking about how you feel is far more likely to have a positive outcome than a negative one. Your healthcare team is well-versed in the range of reactions people have when dealing with cancer and there will be zero judgement. Moreover, it’s also important to tell your doctor or nurse about how you are feeling, as certain cancer treatments are known to have mental and emotional side effects. Feeling better may be as simple as adjusting your treatment plan.

There are many other resources available to help you maintain your mental health in the face of cancer. Contact your oncology social worker, community mental health agency, or your workplace employee assistance program for a list of local mental health professionals. These specialists can help you learn to manage intense emotions with effective coping strategies. 

Mindfulness, meditation, therapy, and support groups have all been found to reduce depression, anxiety, and stress related to a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and recovery, and studies suggest those who include mental health as part of their cancer treatment plan may live longer than those who don’t participate in such programs.

Cancer doesn’t have to be the end of your happiness. When you take the time and care to invest in your mental health, you are not just treating your cancer, but yourself as a whole person.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at [email protected].