Coping with cancer: how to look after your mental health  

Get a free consultation
Health Assured Logo

Health Assured team

15 August 2022

It's estimated that nearly 3 million people in the UK are living with cancer. 

Finding out you have cancer might make the ground feel like it’s falling from under your feet, maybe you feel numb or empty, or maybe, fear and uncertainty consume your mind. It’s a life-changing experience—and there’s no right or wrong way to feel.

A cancer diagnosis can bring up a rollercoaster of emotions ranging from shock, denial, fear, panic, guilt, blame, anger, anxiety, sadness and distress. 

Cancer and other mental health conditions can also be closely linked. This is understandable, considering the huge impact a cancer diagnosis can have on every area of life.

There’s no easy route to making it through cancer. But there are two important things to remember.

  1. You’re not alone. And although this might not make it easier, it does mean there are people out there who can understand what you’re going through. Some people find that connecting with others going through the same thing makes it easier to cope.
  2. However you feel—it’s OK and completely normal. Everyone responds differently; there’s no right or wrong. Some people might feel guilty or worried about their feelings but know that it’s natural to feel a range of emotions during, throughout and after this process.

The advice we’ve put together below will help you look after your mental health and cope with your emotions during this time.

But it isn’t a substitute for proper mental health support. So if you do need help with what you're going through, you can find a list of support providers at the bottom of this article.

Talk to others 

Talking about cancer can help you cope with the rollercoaster of emotions you’re probably feeling. Opening up to trusted family members, friends, and those closest to you will allow you to process your thoughts about diagnosis, treatment and symptoms.

Your family and friends might not know how to approach the topic of conversation with you as they might not want to upset you or feel like they don’t know what to say. But keeping that flow of communication can strengthen bonds between you. If you do feel like you want to talk, try letting people know that you’re ready to talk about what is happening and how you feel.

For when you don’t feel like talking 

Sometimes you might not feel like opening up about how you’re feeling. And this is okay too. In these cases, writing things down can help. 

The paper is a space for you to explore your thoughts and emotions without judgements. This exercise can allow you to take a step back and get some breathing space from difficult thoughts and emotions.

Cancer support groups 

Some people find that talking to others who are going through or have been through something similar can help them to overcome how they’re feeling.

It might not feel like something you feel comfortable doing. But it’s worth considering if you’d like to speak to someone outside your social circle.

Sharing experiences, coping mechanisms and stories can give you hope and help you build connections with others who can relate to what you're going through. 

Consider counselling and therapy options 

Counselling offers a safe space to explore how you feel with a non-judgemental professional. What you’re going through is very difficult, and many people find that this brings up emotions and life changes such as:

  • Confusion
  • Anger
  • A loss of control of life
  • Worries about cancer coming back
  • Worries about dying or death
  • Inability to cope with usual tasks and activities
  • Changes in relationships

Bottling these feelings up inside can become overwhelming. Over time these feelings build up and make things extremely difficult. A counsellor can help you find ways to cope and manage the emotions you're facing.

Taking care of the basics 

Understandably, daily activities might be hard for you right now, and you might not always be able to muster up the energy to exercise or cook healthy meals. But it’s also vital that you take care of yourself while you’re going through this process.

Try your best to eat a healthy balanced diet where you can, which will help beat off feelings of anxiety and depression. Exercise can also counteract feelings of anxiety and depression. But remember to listen to your body and only do what you can manage. Even a short walk can provide a mood boost.

Relaxation techniques 

Relaxation techniques help regulate anxiety symptoms like an elevated heart rate, excessive sweating and dizziness. If you experience a panic attack or intense feelings of anxiety, relaxation techniques can be helpful. Breathing exercises, meditation and yoga all fall into these categories. You can find an example of each of these below.

Box breathing exercise

Box breathing or square breathing is simple, easy to follow and repetitive, so you can quite easily get in the flow. To use this technique, settle in somewhere comfortable.

Inhale through the nose four a count of four.

Hold the air in the lungs for a count of four.

Exhale through the mouth for a count of four.

Hold your breath for a count of four.

Repeat the process for around three to five minutes.

5 step meditation 

 Get comfortable. There’s no right or wrong way to sit in meditation, so simply find a position you can relax in that feels comfy to you. It could be in a chair, on your bed or the ground, sitting up or lying down. You might find it helpful to sit with your feet flat on the floor as it can help ground you in the now.

Close your eyes. Get ready to meditate by letting your eyelids close. You can also let your eyes have a soft focus on what’s around you if this feels more natural.

Breathe in and out naturally. Don’t try to control your breath. Just let it come and go as it is.

Focus your attention on your breathing. Rest your attention on the in-breath and the out-breath. Notice the sensations in your body. Pay attention to where you feel the breath most clearly; this could be your belly, nostrils, or chest.

Gently bring it back to the breath. When paying attention to the breath, you’ll find that attention will get lost in feelings, thoughts, emotions or sounds. When you realise this has happened, notice the sensation or thought and let it go. Then, bring it back to the in-breath and the out-breath—without judgement.


Yoga has been shown to lower stress, relieve anxiety and improve sleep. It doesn’t have to be a vigorous routine or the most flexible position. A few simple stretches can provide the same benefits.

You can go to a local yoga class, find an online video or discover our range of yoga videos on the My Healthy Advantage App if you have access.

Try to be easy on yourself 

Self-care might feel like the last thing you want to do right now. But it’s more important now than ever that you look after yourself. Take it easy, and if you feel up to it, do things that make you feel good.

Have a bath, read a book, or call a friend. Do whatever soothes, and that will look different for everyone. Let yourself cry if you need to, listen to loud music or watch your favourite comedy film.

Looking out for signs of further issues 

70% of young people experience depression during their cancer treatment. Research shows that people with cancer are at a higher risk of developing mental health issues like anxiety or depression. 

Many aspects of cancer make it extremely hard for those who experience it. This can trigger symptoms of mental health problems like low mood, suicidal thoughts and withdrawing from friends and activities.

If you’ve not been feeling like yourself recently, look out for the signs below. It’s important to speak up if you notice these signs have lasted over two weeks. Remember that support is available; you can get help to ease these symptoms.

  • Feeling tired or low on energy
  • Low mood
  • Feeling down or hopeless
  • Changes in eating habits
  • Changes in sleeping habits
  • Suicidal thinking
  • Feeling angry and violent
  • Withdrawing from friends and activities
  • Feeling unable to cope with day-to-day life
  • Concentration problems

Support links and organisations 


Support options, symptoms, information on different types of cancer & how to cope

Cancer Research 

A great range of information and advice, relevant throughout all stages

Nurse Helpline: 0808 800 4040

Macmillan Cancer Support

A range of information and quick-access support

Helpline: 0808 808 00 00

Email support

Online chat


Make your enquiry

Please complete the form below and we'll be in touch to answer your enquiry

Book a place on this workshop

Get a free consultation

Please complete the form and we'll be in touch to schedule your free consultation

An error occurred

We appologise but an error has occurred submitting your form. Please try again.