The 5 Emotional Stages of People with Cancer: A Deep Dive by Manta Cares

The 5 Emotional Stages of People with Cancer: A Deep Dive by Manta Cares


Receiving a cancer diagnosis can feel like you've hopped onto an emotional rollercoaster, and individuals may experience these emotions differently and in various stages. While there is no universally accepted set of "5 stages of emotions" specifically for cancer diagnosis, the concept of emotional stages often draws from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross's model, which was originally developed to describe the stages of grief and was later applied to the emotional experiences of individuals facing serious illness. It's important to note that not everyone goes through these stages in a linear fashion. Additionally, some people may cycle through these stages multiple times, and others may not experience all of them. The emotional response to a cancer diagnosis is highly individual, and each person's experience is unique. Seeking support from healthcare professionals, counselors, support groups, and loved ones can be invaluable during this challenging time. I am 12 years out from my cancer diagnosis, and I still experience emotional ups and downs. Cancer really is the gift that keeps on giving!

The 5 Emotional Stages of People with Cancer

Denial: The Initial Shock

Denial is a powerful and often initial reaction when you find out you have cancer. It's like your mind trying to protect you from a really scary truth by making you believe that it's not real. It feels almost like you're trapped in a dream where the bad news isn't true, and you hope that if you ignore it, it might just go away. It's a way of shielding yourself from the overwhelming emotions and fear that come with such a difficult diagnosis. In this stage, you might find it hard to believe that cancer is a part of your life, and you may push the thoughts away in an attempt to hold onto a sense of normalcy. I can still remember the day I heard the words, “you have cancer.” It felt like I was swimming through time, the air seemed very thick and time seemed to move really slowly. I almost felt like I’d be sucked into an alternate universe.

Anger: The Inevitable Resentment

Anger is like a fierce and fiery storm inside you when you hear the word "cancer." It's the frustration and upset bubbling up because you didn't want this to happen. This feeling often comes after your initial reaction of denial as it starts to sink in that you really are dealing with this diagnosis. You might feel mad at the world, at your body, or even at the people around you, even though it's no one’s fault. It's a sense of unfairness, wishing you could turn back time to make it all go away. I had a lot of moments of “why me?” and “what did I do to deserve this?” I also found that I would turn my fear and anger toward cancer and direct it toward those I loved, especially my husband. It felt good to have a target for that mess of feelings, but it certainly 1) wasn’t his fault and 2) didn’t help our relationship! This anger is a natural reaction to the fear and uncertainty that cancer brings into your life, and it's okay to feel this way as you grapple with the new reality, but might I recommend that you not direct it at the people you love.

Bargaining: The Quest for Answers

Bargaining is like trying to make a deal with the universe after hearing that you have cancer. It's when you start to think, "If I do this or that, maybe it will go away, or maybe things will get better." It's like searching for a glimmer of hope in the midst of fear and uncertainty. But sometimes, it can also bring a sense of guilt, as you wonder if you could have done something differently to prevent it. Did all of those Doritos I ate as a kid cause my cancer? (Maybe that was just my specific internal question, but we all have those things or moments that come to the surface as we grapple with the “why me” moments.) It's a challenging tightrope to walk, trying to find a balance between accepting the reality of the diagnosis and taking proactive steps to cope with it. It's important to remember that while bargaining can offer hope, it's not always within our control to change the outcome, and ultimately, accepting the situation and seeking medical advice is crucial. In fact, for me, once I had a plan with my doctors, I felt like I had gained back a little bit of control over my situation.

Depression: The Overwhelming Despair

Depression can be like a heavy cloud that settles over you when you learn you have cancer. It's when sadness takes over, and you may feel like you're carrying a weight too large to bear. Recognizing signs of depression, like constant sadness, loss of interest in things you once enjoyed, and changes in sleep or appetite, is important. Coping with this overwhelming sadness can be challenging, but there are ways to help. Talking to a counselor or therapist can provide valuable support, and joining a cancer support group can connect you with others who understand what you're going through. I have done all of the above since my cancer diagnosis in 2011. My piece of advice would be to do this soon after you learn of your diagnosis as you might not feel like you “need” it yet, but you will likely need that support at some time, so you’ll be ready with the people and tools you need when the time comes. Caretakers, the people who care for those with cancer, play a vital role in this emotional stage by offering love, patience, and a listening ear. They can also help encourage seeking professional help when needed, ensuring that emotional well-being is as important as physical health during the cancer journey. Remember, asking for help is not a sign of weakness. If there’s any time in life where you need that village around you, a cancer diagnosis is that time!

Acceptance: Embracing the New Reality

Acceptance is like finding a calm harbor after a storm when you've been told you have cancer. It's the moment when you stop fighting against the reality of your diagnosis and start to adapt to it. It doesn't mean you're happy about having cancer, but you've come to terms with it and are ready to face it head-on. Personal stories of acceptance often highlight remarkable resilience, where individuals draw on their inner strength to live each day with purpose and courage. And that does happen for people, but the stories that aren’t as often highlighted are the ones about just making it through the day, and what an impressive feat that is. The path to acceptance is different for everyone, and there’s no right way to approach it. Life after acceptance involves making treatment decisions, seeking support from loved ones and healthcare professionals, and finding ways to continue pursuing dreams and goals while living with cancer. It's a challenging road, but many people find strength, hope, and a renewed appreciation for life on this journey... at least on some days! And you take the “win” days when you can!

How Manta Cares Supports You Through Each Stage

Manta Cares is a global community of cancer patients, caregivers and survivors, working to make the cancer experience just a little easier. We provide: 

  • Tools to stay organized, like our Manta Planner, a science-backed,  all-in-one place to keep track of your appointments, symptom tracking and medication management, gratitude journaling and compiling questions to ask your doctor
  • Nutritional support with Nutritional Chef Raghav, where you can learn practical ways to have an anti-cancer diet that meets your individual needs
  • Cancer coaching to help with your mental and emotional wellbeing during and after cancer, 
  • Free resources such as our chemo checklist for caregivers and other tools to help you navigate the cancer experience.
  • A community that “gets it.” Manta Cares was founded by a breast cancer survivor and is run by other cancer survivors and caregivers. We’ve been there and we want you to know that you are not alone in your experience. It’s the old adage about being a part of the club you never wanted to join. Well welcome to that club. We’re sorry you’re here, but happy you found us!

"Patient from Hell" Podcast: Real Stories, Real Emotions

In addition to our tools and resources, we produce a bi-weekly podcast called the “Patient From Hell” where we interview oncologists, cancer non-profit leaders, caregivers, patients and survivors. We’ve featured guests such as Patrick Delaney (Head of NCCN Foundation), Paula Kim (Founder of PanCan), Dr. Yi-wen Huang (Metastatic breast cancer patient), Jane Gutkovich (Founder of the EHE Foundation and caregiver), Katie Coleman (Rare cancer patient and TikTok patient influencer), Dave Durante (Olympic gymnast and fitness expert), Dr. Manuela Kogon (Stanford professor and author). And you can view all past guests and listen to episodes here. Each episode aims to educate, empower and inspire you, and again, show you that you are not alone in your cancer experience.

5 Emotional Stages of People with Cancer: Conclusion

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you may experience the five stages of grief, which include denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. These emotional stages can vary in intensity and duration, but are a natural part of processing the challenging news. Recognizing and addressing emotional well-being is super important throughout this experience, as it plays a significant role in one's overall health and resilience. And just remember, there’s no one “right” way to handle this new curveball life has thrown at you. It might take you some time to figure out how to navigate this “new normal,” but again, we are here for you during your experience. Our Manta Cares podcast “Patient From Hell” and newsletter provide information, personal stories, and expert advice, empowering you to navigate the emotional complexities of a cancer diagnosis and to find strength and hope in the face of this crappy experience called cancer.

Additional Resources and Readings

Here are some other resources you might find helpful:

  • American Cancer Society (ACS): The ACS website offers comprehensive information on cancer types, treatment options, support services, and prevention strategies. Website:
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI): NCI provides authoritative information on cancer research, clinical trials, and cancer statistics. Their website offers valuable resources for patients and caregivers. Website:
  • CancerCare: CancerCare's website offers free support services, including counseling, support groups, and financial assistance for cancer patients and their families. Website:
  • Cancer.Net: Developed by the American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO), Cancer.Net offers reliable information on cancer types, treatment options, and survivorship. Website:
  • National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN): NCCN provides guidelines for cancer care and treatment, which can be helpful for patients and healthcare providers. Website:
  • Cancer Hope Network: This organization connects cancer patients with trained volunteer cancer survivors who offer one-on-one emotional support. Website:

Frequently Asked Questions About The 5 Emotional Stages of People with Cancer

What are the emotional stages of terminal cancer? 

The emotional stages of terminal cancer are often marked by profound sadness, anxiety, and a sense of impending loss, as individuals and their loved ones grapple with the knowledge that the illness is not curable.

What are the five emotions of cancer patients? 

Cancer patients may experience a range of emotional states throughout their journey, including fear and uncertainty upon diagnosis, followed by anger or frustration as they navigate treatment challenges. Many patients also find moments of hope, resilience, and acceptance as they receive support from healthcare providers and loved ones, ultimately shaping a unique emotional path during their cancer experience.

What are the common emotional problems for a cancer patient? 

Common emotional problems for cancer patients often include anxiety and depression, which can stem from the stress of diagnosis, treatment side effects, and the uncertainty of the future. Additionally, feelings of isolation and fear of recurrence can contribute to emotional distress, highlighting the importance of comprehensive psychosocial support in cancer care.

What are the 5 stages of cancer grief? 

The concept of the "5 stages of cancer grief" is not a widely recognized psychological model. However, individuals diagnosed with cancer may experience a range of emotions that can be loosely compared to the stages of grief, including denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance, as they come to terms with their diagnosis and navigate the challenges of living with the disease.

Personality changes in cancer patients?

Cancer and its treatments can sometimes lead to personality changes in patients due to factors such as physical discomfort, emotional distress, and changes in brain function from medications. These changes can vary widely and may include increased irritability, mood swings, and alterations in cognitive abilities, highlighting the need for understanding and support from both healthcare providers and loved ones.

Why do cancer patients get mean? 

Cancer patients may sometimes exhibit increased irritability or appear "mean" due to the physical and emotional toll of the disease and its treatments. Pain, discomfort, anxiety, and frustration can contribute to shifts in behavior, emphasizing the importance of patience, empathy, and open communication in supporting cancer patients during their challenging journey.

How does cancer change a person? 

Cancer can profoundly change people, both physically and emotionally. While some individuals may become more resilient and gain a deeper appreciation for life, others may grapple with feelings of fear, uncertainty, and a shift in priorities, ultimately reshaping their perspectives and priorities.

Psychological effects of cancer? 

The psychological effects of cancer can be far-reaching, encompassing a wide range of emotions including anxiety, depression, fear, and stress. Cancer patients often experience these effects due to the shock of diagnosis, the uncertainty of treatment outcomes, and the physical and emotional challenges associated with the disease, highlighting the critical importance of psychosocial support and mental health care in cancer care.

Stage 4 cancer and anger? 

Stage 4 cancer patients may often experience anger as they grapple with the reality of an advanced and often incurable disease. This anger can be directed towards the illness itself, the impact on their lives, or the medical challenges they face, highlighting the complex emotional landscape that accompanies late-stage cancer.

How do cancer patients feel emotionally? 

Cancer patients can experience a wide spectrum of emotions, ranging from fear, sadness, and anxiety to hope, resilience, and gratitude. These emotional responses are highly individual and can fluctuate throughout the cancer journey, reflecting the complex and multifaceted nature of the experience.

What not to say to someone with cancer? 

When speaking to someone with cancer, it's important to avoid making dismissive or minimizing comments, such as saying, "It's just hair, it will grow back," as this can downplay their very real emotional and physical challenges. Additionally, refraining from offering unsolicited medical advice or sharing negative stories about cancer outcomes can help create a more supportive and empathetic environment for the person facing the disease.

What do cancer patients want to hear? 

Cancer patients often appreciate hearing messages of empathy, support, and encouragement. Most importantly, listen first. Just being there for someone going through cancer can be a huge comfort.

How do you cheer up someone with cancer?

To cheer someone up with cancer, it's essential to be a good listener and offer your presence and companionship. Thoughtful gestures such as sending cards, bringing their favorite snacks, or arranging visits can also provide comfort and moments of joy during their treatment.

What do cancer patients need? 

Cancer patients often need a strong support system that includes emotional support from friends and family. Knowing they are not alone in their experience can go a long way!

Disclaimer: This post is for general informational purposes only and does not constitute the practice of medicine, nursing or other professional health care services, including the giving of medical advice, and no doctor/patient relationship is formed. The use of information from this post or materials linked from this post is at the user's own risk. The content of this post is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Users should not disregard, or delay in obtaining, medical advice for any medical condition they may have, and should seek the assistance of their health care professionals for any such conditions.

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