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Why Am I Feeling Shocked After a Cancer Diagnosis

Posted in: Articles April 17, 2017 By Stan Gottfredson Read by 1010 Users

Upon being told they are suffering from cancer, numerous patients report feeling completely numb, unable to express any emotion or very detached from the entire situation. These are common signs of shock, which is a natural reaction to a cancer diagnosis. Due to the severity, complexity and terminal nature of the disease, cancer is often associated with a death sentence. In 2016, approximately 595,690 people in the U.S. lost their lives to this devastating illness, while 1,685,210 new cases were diagnosed.

Regardless of how well-adjusted and emotionally balanced, you are, hearing that you have a serious disease will undoubtedly affect you psychologically, to a greater or lesser extent. A cancer diagnosis is truly life-altering for most people, as it forces them to change their personal routine suddenly, which can be extremely stressing and overwhelming. Because malignant diseases have such a high prevalence in this day and age, not few are those who have a family member, friend, co-worker or acquaintance struggling with a form of cancer.

Unfortunately, awareness and knowledge – which will benefit you enormously later throughout your journey – cannot prepare you emotionally for receiving a cancer diagnosis. There is no certain way of predicting how a person will react and the emotional response will vary considerably from individual to individual. Nevertheless, disbelief and shock are frequently experienced by people who have just been informed they have cancer. It is important to remember that your reaction cannot be deemed “right” or “wrong”, as a cancer diagnosis will trigger a different response in each person.

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What Are The Signs of Emotional Shock?

Emotional shock, also known as psychological shock or acute stress reaction, is a response to a traumatic, painful or terrifying event, which arises immediately after experiencing or witnessing it. A cancer diagnosis can easily trigger emotional shock, as it is something unexpected which may have serious health and life implication for the individual. The signs ensue within minutes or hours following the stressful event and generally last for several days or weeks. Symptoms are both psychological and physical. In the case of cancer patients, some of the most common signs of shock which appear right after the diagnosis are:

  • not being able to take in all the information your doctor provides you with and needing to have certain information repeated to you
  • feeling numb
  • being unable to express any emotion
  • feeling dizzy, all over the place or unable to think clearly
  • being unaware of your surroundings
  • seeing yourself from another perspective, feeling detached from your body (depersonalization)
  • feeling that your surroundings are not real, everything seems dreamlike (derealization)
  • hyperarousal (fight-or-flight response)
  • feeling that you are losing control
  • heart palpitations
  • nausea
  • sweating
  • headache
  • difficulty breathing

Within the following days, you may also start noticing some of the following symptoms, which should gradually wear off while you are getting accustomed to your diagnosis:

  • re-experiencing the situation vividly through recurrent dreams and flashbacks, as well as when someone reminds you of it
  • avoiding everything which triggers memories of the event, such as people, thoughts, activities, conversations or places
  • anxiety, irritability, and hypervigilance
  • sleep disturbance
  • difficulty concentrating
  • a disruption in social and work functioning
  • low mood

While shock is a normal reaction to a cancer diagnosis, it could have long-term effects for some patients. If your symptoms do not alleviate within one month and you continue experiencing severe psychological distress, we strongly advise you to seek help from a mental health professional. Occasionally, acute stress reaction foregoes post-traumatic stress disorder, which cancer patients can also suffer from. Discussing your symptoms with a therapist, psychiatrist or counselor will benefit your emotional wellbeing, as they will be able to guide you towards the most effective solution and provide you with the support you need.

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How to Manage Shock after a Cancer Diagnosis

Shock usually subsides after the news sinks in. Once you begin realizing that what is happening to you is indeed real, regardless of how unfair it may seem to you, and start accepting your diagnosis with all its implications, the symptoms will slowly wear off. Nevertheless, this is a challenging process and it may take a while. In the meantime, we highly advise you to take into consideration the following suggestions, as they could help you overcome the distress you are experiencing more rapidly or at least ease it:

Focus exclusively on yourself for the next two or three days

Receiving a cancer diagnosis has a profound emotional impact and you will probably be unable to pay attention to other aspects of your life for a while. You should not force yourself to come to terms with your illness. Most patients need at least several weeks to become fully aware of their diagnosis, understand how it may affect their life and prepare themselves for the changes they will have to make in their routine. Get a few days off work, if possible, sleep and eat as much as you feel the need to, do the things you enjoy the most and ask your family to give you some space until you feel a bit better. It is important to remember that you will eventually start feeling better, no matter how dire the situation seems now.

Do not make important decisions unless it is a real emergency

It is ill-advised to make hasty decisions as soon as you find out about your diagnosis, as you will act under pressure and will probably fail to thoroughly evaluate all the options you have. You should also refrain from making any decisions regarding your treatment within the first few days unless your illness is very advanced. Choosing the most appropriate cancer treatment is a complex task which requires extensive research and careful consideration. However, it is a wise idea to undergo a series of additional tests and seek a second opinion from another specialist as soon as you receive your diagnosis.

Reach out to your family and friends for emotional support when you are ready

Emotional support is invaluable when you are going through such difficult moments. Surrounding yourself with people who are willing to listen to you and validate your feelings can significantly ease the burden of your new diagnosis. Nevertheless, you should only do this when you are ready. Cancer patients whose initial response is shock usually need some time alone to take in the news before feeling prepared to discuss it with other people. Similarly, you should not feel pressured to maintain an optimistic façade for your loved ones. When you are battling cancer, remaining constantly hopeful is impossible and you should always express you emotions freely.

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