Looking after your mental health during and after cancer

Beating stress

Stress can be caused by many things including work, money worries or health concerns. Coping with difficult times in your life, such as if you or a loved one has cancer, can be a worrying and stressful time. Everyone reacts differently to stress and there is no right or wrong way to deal with it.

There are several things you can do to help deal with stress better.

  • Manage your time effectively and prioritise more important tasks first.
  • Know your limitations – don’t take on too much.
  • Try not to get into situations that make you feel angry or upset.
  • Accept the things you can’t change and concentrate on the things you have control over.
  • Find time to meet friends and family – arrange to do something you enjoy and have fun.
  • Speak to your doctor or nurse about talking or complementary therapies such as massage, aromatherapy or cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).


It’s natural to worry about the effect cancer may have on you or a loved one and what the future may hold. Anxiety is a feeling of unease and it’s common when faced with a stressful situation such as cancer. Mild anxiety can often be positive and useful, but ‘troublesome’ anxiety can start to interfere with everyday activities. You may feel tired, irritable, have trouble sleeping, get palpitations, shortness of breath or dizziness.

Lifestyle changes and talking through your problems with a counsellor can help to improve your anxiety. Simple relaxation exercises or complementary therapies, such as meditation or acupuncture, may also help.


If you’re affected by cancer, it’s not unusual to have times when you feel low. However, a continuous low mood that doesn’t go away quickly can be a sign of depression. It can be triggered by finding out that you or a loved one has cancer, or the treatment and impact cancer has on you.

As well as looking after yourself, talking therapies, such as counselling, and medicines including antidepressants can be useful ways of dealing with depression. Talk to your doctor or nurse if you think you may be depressed.


Having cancer, or knowing someone who has cancer, can make you feel angry. You may not be able to do things you used to do, find that people around you are acting differently or think it’s unfair that you or someone has been affected by cancer whereas others haven’t. Everyone gets angry about different things but most people are able to keep their anger under control. If you feel you’re unable to cope with your temper, try the following.

  • Calm down. When you start to feel the first stirrings of anger bubbling up inside you, stop and think for a moment. This will give you time to reflect on the situation and consider how best to respond.
  • Walk away. If you feel you’re too angry to speak, remove yourself from the situation. Try to work out what makes you angry so you know when to leave things alone.
  • Resolve unfinished business. This is important for you in the longer term. If you’re able to understand why you get angry, you can try to resolve past issues and prevent anger building up in the future.
  • Be constructive, not destructive. When you’re irritated by something, take ownership of your feelings and tell people why you’re angry. If you talk slowly and clearly and make requests rather than demands, others will respect your argument and listen to what you have to say.

Looking after your physical health

Keeping yourself in good physical health can have a positive effect on your mental health and set you up better to help cope with those not so good days. It will also help you manage the side-effects of treatment and the changes having cancer brings. There are a number of things you can do to help keep you in good physical health.

  • Eat right. It’s always tempting to tuck into unhealthy foods when you’re feeling a bit low, but if you resist and eat a healthy and balanced diet you will be able to maintain your weight and keep your energy levels up.
  • Keep active. Regular physical activity helps your brain release happy hormones (endorphins), improving how you feel. Getting your 150 minutes of moderate exercise over a week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more, will also boost your mobility and allow you to keep your independence.
  • Sleep well. Tiredness that cancer and its treatment can cause may affect your ability to concentrate, demotivate you and leave you drained of energy. Make sure you get a good night’s sleep so you can feel relaxed, recharged and refreshed for the new day ahead.


Taking time out for yourself and learning to relax can help you during difficult times of cancer as well manage any symptoms of stress or anxiety you may have. It’s also likely you will feel tired from your cancer treatment and taking time out to relax can help. A warm bath or listening to soothing music may be all it takes for you to unwind and relax. Others may want to try some of the following relaxation techniques.

  • Imagery. Using your imagination to think of a scene that has a calming effect on your mood, such as the memory of a holiday.
  • Muscle relaxation. Aim to squeeze and release each of your major muscles – starting from your feet up to your head – and imagine tension flowing out of your body.
  • Simple relaxation exercises. Simple stretches, such as shoulder shrugs or back stretches.
  • Deep breathing exercises. Focus on your breathing – its rhythm, depth and speed.

Ask for help when you need it

If you feel you aren’t coping on your own, you shouldn’t feel guilty or embarrassed about asking others for support. Life-changing events, such as cancer, are often difficult to deal with, but it’s important to remember help is out there and taking advantage of it can make all the difference.

Communicating about cancer

Cancer can be a worrying time, not only for you, but for your friends and family. It’s also important to understand the illness and its treatment to be able to talk about it with others.

  • Doctors and nurses who are experts in cancer will be aware of the different emotions and reactions people have to the illness.
  • Your doctor or nurse may be able to put you in contact with support groups, or a counsellor or psychologist who will listen to you, provide support, advice and practical tips on how to cope with cancer.
  • Some people find talking to friends and family helpful to see things from a different perspective – others may not. It’s important to listen, talk slowly and not be scared or worried about saying the wrong thing.
  • Talking to children about cancer can be a frightening thought. It’s often best to be open and honest. Try explaining cancer in a simple language and explain any possible changes in your appearance or lifestyle that they may notice.
  • Talking to colleagues at work about cancer is your decision. Some people may find it useful talking to their manager or some employers have an employee assistance programme that provides confidential counselling and advice.