Coping with Cancer: Just Got Diagnosed?

Just Got Diagnosed?

Here’s How to Get Prepared for the Road Ahead


Gary R. McClain, PhD


“I just got diagnosed with cancer. Now what do I do?”

I am a therapist who specializes in working with people facing a medical diagnosis, including cancer. They come into my office struggling with their emotional reactions to their diagnosis and what it will mean, as well as all those strange and uncomfortable feelings that are coming up. We talk about their fears and hopes regarding treatment. And we talk about what a cancer diagnosis means for their future.


Why Me?

If you are like other recently diagnosed cancer patients, you might be asking that unanswerable question, ‘Why me?, along with a few others: ‘What will happen to me?’ ‘What will my life be like?’ ‘Will I be normal?’

These are very big questions, and the answers are not simple, if they are answerable at all. But it’s normal to feel this way. But it’s also possible to harness all of your resources and face your cancer diagnosis, and all that it is going to mean for you, from a position of power. This begins with you – developing an optimistic outlook and powered up with information. It means connecting with the people in your life who can help you, as well as with a sense of a greater meaning beyond your day-to-day experience. And it means having a realistic but also optimistic plan for your future.


Don’t be Afraid to Feel.

Staying centered – and hanging on to what is really the essence of who you are as a person – takes some work. It all begins with looking inside.

Start preparing for the future by acknowledging the emotions that you are experiencing right now. It’s only human to have feelings like fear and anger when hearing about cancer, as well as disappointment and confusion. Feelings don’t disappear just because we don’t want to experience them. When you admit how you feel, even those feelings that you don’t think you should be having, the effect is almost magical. They lose their power to control you. Sure, they might revisit at times, but once negative emotions are acknowledged and experienced, they may also give way to hope, optimism, and a renewed passion for life. Whatever your feeling is normal. So don’t judge yourself.

In many ways, the emotional reaction to a cancer diagnosis is like going through a grieving process. A cancer diagnosis can feel like a loss. A meeting with your doctor suddenly changed the course of your life, at least for the near future. Your life may feel like it has been turned upside down.


Start Talking.

The grieving process is different for everybody, and so is the process of dealing with the emotions around your cancer diagnosis. But the key is the same and it’s simple: Talk. Talk to positive role models. Get to know other cancer patients and how they are coping. Learn what you can from those who are successfully coping with their diagnosis. You might want to consider joining a support group, or checking out online patient communities, or meeting with a mental health professional. Talk to your friends and family. Continue that conversation you started earlier about how you can support each other and not only in relation to your diagnosis. Your diagnosis doesn’t define who you, and your relationships with the people you love, are. Don’t go through this alone!


Don’t Neglect Your Spirit.

When you feel connected to whatever you consider to be your Higher Power, you expand beyond what you see and experience. In turn, your definition of yourself expands. There are many ways to define and experience spirituality. You can begin to pray, practice meditation, read the works of spiritual teachers and apply their philosophies to your life, or become a member of a religious community, a church or synagogue. Simply listening to music that means something to you, sitting in a calm setting, doing something relaxing, enjoying a hobby that makes you forget about yourself, spending time with loved ones… these can also be spiritual experiences.


Get Prepared for the Road Ahead

Believe me, I know that a diagnosis of cancer feel like a punch in the gut, followed by the feeling that your life, as you have known it, has come to an end. Here is what I tell my clients: You are not a diagnosis. Your diagnosis is only a part of who you are.   Remind yourself every day that you are a fascinating, multi-dimensional creature with a past, a present, and a future that belongs to you and you alone. And remind all your friends and family members that you are more than a diagnosis and you all need to talk, keep talking about what is happening to all of you .

Look at your diagnosis in terms of the practical needs it has and then look beyond it. Embrace life and your potential to live your life, with all of its triumphs, set-backs, and surprises and detours.

Get prepared for the road ahead!


Gary McClain, PhD, is a therapist, patient advocate, and author in New York City, who specializes in working with individuals diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their caregivers, and professionals. He maintains a website,