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The Leukemia/Bone Marrow Transplant Program of BC

Coping & Support
Emotional Effects of Cancer

Common Emotions

Before discussing some negative emotions, a word about HOPE! Hope is the belief that a positive outcome lies ahead. Hope is being honest with yourself about your situation, while still looking forward to positive outcomes in your future.

Some common emotions you or your family/friends may be experiencing:


Feeling shocked is often the first reaction when cancer is diagnosed. You may feel numb and not believe what is happening, be unable to express any emotion, find you can only take in small amounts of information, or ask the same questions or need to be told the same thing over and over again. Needing to have information repeated is a common reaction to shock. You may experience emotional numbness where you have the sensation of being completely drained, or worn out.

Some people may find their feelings of disbelief make talking about their illness with family and friends difficult. Others feel the urge to talk about it as a way of helping them to accept the news. If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, please speak to your nurse or BMT social worker. They can assist you in finding appropriate peer-to-peer support services.

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The first few weeks at Vancouver General Hospital can be difficult. On top of the stress your illness is causing you and your family (whether it be physical, emotional, spiritual and/or financial), you will be dealing with the stress of being in a new area, adjusting to the outpatient or inpatient hospital routine and, more importantly, establishing trust in the health care team.

In a short time, our health care team will attempt to make you very well informed. You may feel overwhelmed with the sheer volume of information presented to you regarding your treatment. You may be required to learn more than you wished or anticipated. If you have any questions or don’t understand what has been said, please ask for clarification.

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Sadness or Depression

Throughout diagnosis, treatment, and recovery most people will periodically experience reactions of sadness and grief. On learning they have cancer; they often have feelings of disbelief, denial, or despair. They may also experience difficulties with sleeping, loss of appetite, anxiety, and a preoccupation with worries about the future.

These symptoms and fears will usually lessen as a person adjusts to the diagnosis. Signs that a person has adjusted to the diagnosis are evidenced by their ability to maintain an active involvement in daily life activities, and an ability to continue functioning in their daily roles.  A person who cannot adjust to the diagnosis after a long period of time, and who loses interest in usual activities, may be depressed. 

The signs and symptoms of depression include:

  • Loss of pleasure and interest in most activities
  • Having a depressed mood most of the time
  • Inability to experience joy
  • Changes in eating and sleeping habits
  • Nervousness or sluggishness or tiredness
  • Feelings of hopelessness
  • Feelings of worthlessness or inappropriate guilt
  • Poor concentration
  • Constant thoughts of death or suicide

Mild symptoms of depression can be distressing and may be helped with counselling.  However, when symptoms are intense and long lasting, or when they keep coming back, more intensive treatment is needed. It is very important to talk to the health care team if you have any symptoms of depression.

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Fear is an overwhelming emotion that patients and families experience before, during, and even after hospitalisation/treatment. These fears include fear for the well being of your family, fear of discomfort/pain, fear of what your future holds and fear of dying. Although our units in the Leukemia/BMT Program are a place of hope, it is important to realise that patients can die during the course of hospitalisation. Family members and patients may not always talk about their fears of death as a way of trying to protect one another. These fears are very real and sharing them with family and the health care team usually helps.

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Another common reaction to illness is anger.  Anger can range from mild irritation or frustration to rage or fury. Some patients direct their anger at their family or the staff, while others may be angry with God.  Relatives may be angry with the patient for getting sick and disrupting their lives.  Anger is a very normal reaction to the stress a family feels during diagnosis, treatment and transplant.  It is very important to find an outlet, such as talking to someone, in order to relieve the tension.  It is important to realize that this is a time when both the patient and their families/support persons need mutual support.

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Many families talk about feeling guilty. Parents can feel guilty because their child has cancer, while adult patients may feel guilty for being a burden to their family. Children can also feel guilty that a parent is ill, especially when they do not fully understand what is happening. These feelings are a common human emotion and coping with them can be difficult. Again, it is important and can be helpful to share these feelings with someone.

All of these reactions are normal. You and your family should not hesitate to use the understanding, experience and support of the health care team to help you deal with these feelings.

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