The emotional impact of a cancer diagnosis


A cancer diagnosis can be traumatic, both as a patient and as a loved one. Here's what to expect.

Does cancer seem like a distant or unlikely possibility? For Laurie Gaum, facing a sudden diagnosis of Stage 3 lung cancer was the last thing he ever expected.

"Sometimes life forces you to face your reality. The first few months were a difficult, introspective process for me, some of it very dark," he says.

A cancer diagnosis goes hand-in-hand with a whirlwind of emotions: shock, fear, anger, sadness, denial, and feeling out of control and overwhelmed. While these are all completely normal reactions, every person’s journey is different, so you should address whatever feelings you or a loved one are experiencing.

Any serious illness can affect mental wellbeing

"Receiving a potentially fatal diagnosis, going through treatment protocols and learning to live with limitations are not only devastating, but can also lead to depression for many patients," says Prof Michael Herbst, a health specialist at The Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA).

He adds, "A new study from Germany maintains that 32% of cancer patients can develop full-blown psychological disorders such as anxiety or depression. This is why managing your mental health needs plays such a pivotal role in your treatment programme and may even impact on your prognosis and recovery."

Don't ignore the symptoms

As one in three cancer patients battle anxiety or depression, the South African Depression and Anxiety Group (SADAG) recommends looking out for signs that you or your loved one may be developing a mental health disorder.

Symptoms include:

  • Persistently feeling sad or anxious
  • Feeling restless and irritable
  • Sleeping and eating too little or too much
  • Feeling helpless or hopeless
  • Battling to concentrate

If left untreated, a mental health disorder like depression can negatively affect recovery. It's important to communicate needs and expectations, and to make a conscious effort to be patient and gracious with those diagnosed, as well as with caretakers.

A survivor's story

The biggest challenge for Laurie Gaum was learning to deal with the twists and turns of his cancer journey.

As his immune system restored itself, he found himself making an unexpected emotional adjustment. "I had post-treatment depression for a couple of months. I'd had the profound experience preparing for the possibility of death, and all of a sudden I had to contemplate a change in direction - I was going to live! It was difficult," he recalls.

Gaum's cancer has been in remission since 2013. Reflecting on what he’s learnt from the journey, Gaum says it taught him to better cope with life and treat people with more love.

"I no longer waste too much time on things I don't want. I think I’m more effective now in working out what's necessary and where to make the most impact with my precious life." Watch this video to hear more about his new perspective.

Remember, you're not alone

It's important to remember to share your feelings and emotions with your medical team, family and friends. Support is vital during a cancer journey, which is why patients should register on the Discovery Health Medical Scheme Oncology Programme as soon as possible (call us on 0860 99 88 77 for assistance).

Exercise, healthy eating and counselling can all help too. Check out CANSA's online support resources or call the SADAG 24-hour helpline on 0800 12 13 14 for advice and support.

Fund your family's living costs in case of critical illness

The last thing anyone needs with a diagnosis is financial strain, especially when you have a family counting on you. The Discovery Life Severe Illness Benefit offers you and your family protection from the financial impact of a critical illness such as cancer. The payout is based on the severity level of your illness and can be used in any way you want - to fund living costs, make changes to your home necessitated by the illness, or pay for medical treatment.

Discovery Life also offers the Cancer Relapse Benefit. With the Cancer Relapse Benefit you can receive a further payment of up to 100% of your insured amount on the recurrence of a cancer after a one-year remission period. This benefit is automatically included with the LifeTime Benefit. 


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