Learning that your cancer has spread, or come back, may be even more devastating than hearing for the first time that you have cancer.
It may be hard to take it in - your thoughts may be in complete turmoil, or your mind may go blank. This shock and disbelief can give way to strong, often overwhelming, emotions.
People often have a sense of loss, or feelings of failure. You may have hoped that you were cured and now find your cancer has come back despite your efforts to overcome it. You may find yourself tearful and feeling low. Some people are stunned and resentful to see life going on as normal around them when their own world is in such turmoil.
Many people are frightened. You may be afraid of the illness itself; the treatment; the effect it may have on your family; symptoms such as pain; or dying.
You may feel very angry - with yourself, or with the doctors and nurses for giving you bad news. You may be angry at fate, feeling that it is so unfair that this should have happened. You may be resentful and frustrated that your immediate plans will be disrupted with tests and treatment, and that your long-term plans have suddenly become uncertain.
Some things may shock you: decisions like 'Is it worth paying my subscription this year? - I may not be here long' or 'I'd love to buy some new clothes - but will I ever get to wear them?'
Different people have different emotions. Living with the uncertainty that comes with the spread or recurrence of cancer is likely to be physically and emotionally demanding.
If you had hoped that your cancer was cured, it can be very hard to have to make decisions about treatment again, about what to tell your family, friends and people at work, and about what adjustments to make to your home life. There are many sources of help.
What you can do
- Be aware of how you feel. It's natural and normal to feel a whole range of powerful emotions when your life is suddenly turned upside-down by illness. There are many ways you can get help to enable you to work through and deal with your emotions.
- If you can, find someone you can talk to about how you feel. This might be a family member or friend, a nurse or other carer, or a religious or spiritual leader. If you feel uncomfortable talking about these things with someone you know, you may prefer to join a support group or to see a counsellor.
- Remind yourself of ways in which you have dealt with other difficult situations in the past. Remember the strengths you had then, and see if you can use them again now.
Setting your priorities
Some people with cancer say that they have a better appreciation of the ordinary things of life, such as family and friends, hobbies, a favourite book, picture or piece of music. Many people find their lives are more focused and they are less irritated by day-to-day problems.
Knowing that your illness may not be curable can give you an opportunity to decide what is important to you, and how you want to spend your time. You may have to give up some long-term plans, but you don't have to abandon all your ambitions. You may find that you now have the time to take up an activity that you have always been too busy to do before. Concentrating on what you can achieve and enjoy can give you pleasure and may help you to cope when you cannot meet other aims.
Talking to your doctor or nurse
Your worries about things like how your cancer may affect your daily life, or what symptoms you might have, may be eased with information. Contact your doctor, social worker or the Cancer Council to enquire about support services. It might be helpful to prepare some questions you might like to ask.
Palliative care services
Palliative care does not try to cure disease but aims to help you and your family improve your quality of life by addressing physical, practical, emotional and spiritual needs associated with your illness. It incorporates a range of services offered by medical, nursing and allied health professionals, as well as volunteers and informal carers.
More information on palliative care services
Living with Advanced Cancer (PDF 1.08MB)
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