Your emotional concerns: Coping with a new breast cancer diagnosis
If you’ve recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, we’re here with you — and we know that the news can bring a flood of emotions. Fear, anger, sadness, anxiety, and numbness are all completely normal, and can change over time.
On this page, you can learn about the different and sometimes intense feelings that can arise after a diagnosis, and ways to manage them:
- Understanding that the cancer is not your fault
- How a breast cancer diagnosis can impact your emotions
- Common emotions after a diagnosis
- 10 things you can do right away to cope
- Additional resources
Understanding that the cancer is not your fault
After the initial shock of diagnosis passes, it’s normal to have feelings of hopelessness such as “Why me?” or “How could this have happened?” or “What did I do to deserve this?” as you try to make sense of things. It’s also not uncommon to blame yourself or to feel punished for actions you did or didn’t take in the past that could have led to the diagnosis. But it’s important to know that you didn’t do anything to cause the breast cancer. People often respond to feelings of powerlessness by thinking about things they feel they could have done to prevent this, because it creates the false idea that it’s possible to control an often unpredictable and overwhelming event.
If you’re experiencing these feelings, sometimes it can relieve the pressure to know that the past is just that — the past — and what you do have is this moment, and the power to make informed decisions about what you want for your path forward.
How a breast cancer diagnosis can impact your emotions
Your experience of breast cancer is your own. No reaction or feeling is more or less expected, and none is more or less “normal.” What’s important is to find a balance that helps you move forward from diagnosis to post-treatment.
Emotions about practical concerns
At the beginning, your cancer care team are giving you a lot of new medical information. It’s easy to feel overwhelmed and wonder how you will ever make sense of everything. Practical concerns about health insurance, keeping track of your medical records, getting transportation to and from appointments, and scheduling treatments to fit in with your home and work life are also normal worries to have. Think about who you can turn to for help with these tasks. There may be family members and friends willing to offer support – your “personal support team.”
Sometimes it can feel like there’s pressure, from yourself or from others, to start treatment quickly. It’s not uncommon to worry that you don’t have enough time to gather and process the information you need. Remember that in most cases, breast cancer treatment is not an emergency and taking time to make your decisions is OK.
Start by talking with your care team about a timeline for treatment. Get clarity about how long you can take to make decisions. Use this time to learn more about your diagnosis and treatment options and to gather the people you want around you for support. Taking time to understand your options can help reduce feelings of anxiety. Once a solid plan is in place, there’s often a greater sense of confidence and control.
You may also be concerned about how your treatment will affect your or your family’s day-to-day life. If you have to take time off from work, you may be worried about keeping your job, income, or health insurance. Make a list of the things that worry you and share them with your doctor. He or she may be able to direct you to resources that will help you manage money, job, and insurance concerns.
Also share your list of practical concerns — whether transportation, child care, or food shopping — with your personal support team. Remember, people want to help and giving them a job will make them feel better as well.
Emotions about starting treatment
As you develop a plan and transition toward treatment, the feelings you had right after your diagnosis may reduce in intensity or change.
Still, facing surgery, and other treatments like chemotherapy, targeted therapy, hormonal therapy, and radiation therapy can bring up strong or mixed emotions. Even though your care team will talk with you about potential side effects and ways to manage them, it’s normal to still feel some anxiety. Share any concerns with your team before treatment begins. They can address your fears and make recommendations, such as a support group where you can meet others who’ve been through the same kind of treatment.
Once you understand your diagnosis and have a plan, it can feel grounding to start taking action. Many women feel better emotionally when they begin treatment because decision-making is finished, and they know the therapy is working to get rid of the cancer.
Common emotions after a breast cancer diagnosis
It’s normal to feel a range of emotions after a breast cancer diagnosis, but some are more common than others. There can be fear or sadness, but it’s also possible to feel empowered or motivated to make changes in your lifestyle. Everyone has a different emotional reaction to breast cancer and its treatment.
The most important thing is to let your healthcare team know how you’re feeling. Members of your team, such as your doctor and the hospital social workers, are there to help you make sense of it all.
If you are constantly worried or tense, have trouble managing concerns, or feel overly restless, you might be experiencing anxiety. Learn more about anxiety and how to manage it.
If you feel continually sad, cry often, have trouble getting motivated, or find you’re sleeping too little or too much, you may be experiencing depression. Learn more about depression and how to manage it.
Fear of recurrence
Fear of recurrence, or fear of the cancer coming back, is one of the most common worries among women with early-stage breast cancer. Nearly everyone who has had early-stage breast cancer worries about this possibility. If you feel this way, you are not alone. Knowing what triggers your fears and how to manage your feelings can help. Learn more about fear of recurrence.
10 things you can do right away to cope
Here are 10 things you can do right away to help you cope with a new diagnosis:
- Think about what you need most right now and write it down.
- Make a list of your doctors and their contact information.
- Talk with your family and friends about your fears and concerns.
- Make doctor appointments.
- Write down questions and other information in a notebook or journal, or keep notes on your tablet or smartphone.
- Learn about second opinions and decide whether you want to seek one.
- Decide whether you want to take off work, and talk with your employer about options.
- Take good care of yourself: Get some exercise, catch up with a friend, take a relaxing bath, or seek a support group online or through your hospital social worker
- Seek information about breast cancer from trusted sources; you can start in our I Am Recently Diagnosed section
- Keep track of your medical records. Start a folder or binder, and make copies of everything you receive.
Below you can find articles, personal stories, and downloadable resources that offer additional support for managing feelings after a breast cancer diagnosis.
- Emotional stages of a cancer diagnosis
- Dealing with family
- Medicines for emotional health
- How treatment may impact your emotions
- Living with metastatic breast cancer
Related news & opinion
- Women report positive life changes after breast cancer
- Resources for coping with COVID-19
- Facing breast cancer when you have a mood or anxiety disorder
- What I Wish I Knew: Nothing really prepares you for breast cancer
- Talking to family about your breast cancer diagnosis
Free downloadable resources
- Coping With a New Diagnosis (PDF)
- Guide for the Newly Diagnosed (PDF)
- A Step-by-Step Breathing Exercise for Relaxation (PDF)
Visit our Programs & Events page to learn about our virtual or in-person experiences. You can sign up for a future event to hear from breast cancer experts and meet new people, or view our past programs and events.