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How Do I Handle This Diagnosis?

After diagnosis, people initially experience a range of emotions. Be patient with yourself.

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— Peter Hebeisen/Gallery Stock

The instant you receive a diagnosis of cancer, you begin — consciously and unconsciously — to process the news.

Shock often is the first reaction, says Charles Levenback, M.D., of The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center. You may feel stunned, dazed, numb. The next few days may be foggy, and you might find it hard to concentrate and sleep.

Breast cancer survivor Jennie Bennett, 60, was diagnosed and treated in 1996. Though it's been many years now, she still remembers being shocked when her doctor told her the news, and she immediately thought she was going to die.

"I reacted on feelings first, and I had to go back and find my faith to rely on God to get me through the ordeal."

Others react to cancer diagnoses with:

  • Fear
  • Relief to finally find out what is wrong
  • Anger
  • Calm acceptance, which may mask inner grief, guilt or despair
  • Shame


It's likely your response combines several or all of these feelings. As you begin to process the news, consider the following:

  • Don't feel pressure to do something immediately unless there is a clear-cut emergency, like bleeding or obstruction. Get expert opinions.
  • Although some cancers are more treatable than others, there is no such thing as "a little" cancer. Do not trust those who minimize the threat or your reaction.
  • Take care of yourself. Talk to people if it makes you feel better.
  • If you have a spiritual adviser, speak to him or her. Cancer can shake people's faith or draw them closer to it.
  • Remember that cancer NEVER gets better by itself.
  • Educate yourself about cancer. Knowledge is power.
  • Spend time with family and friends. Connecting and having fun help relieve stress.
  • Begin a journal.
  • Look into your insurance benefits.
  • Keep up normal activities as much as possible. Normalcy can be reassuring.
  • Get support from a survivor with the same diagnosis. Find someone on an Internet site such as Anderson Network, Cancer Care, or the R.A. Bloch Foundation.
  • Avoid stressful situations and people.
  • Acknowledge strong emotions, including anger, sadness, uncertainty.


Finally, be patient with yourself. In your own way and at your own speed, you will come to terms with your diagnosis and move in the direction of getting on with your life.

Printed with permission from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center ©2010.

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