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Man with fearful expression worrying about cancer diagnosis

Fear When Being Diagnosed with Cancer

Hearing “you have cancer” is a stop-you-in-your-tracks moment; ask any cancer patient and they likely recall it with an oxymoronic “hazy clarity”. You may remember exactly where you were, what you were doing, or something randomly notable about the surroundings. You’ll likely forget a large chunk of the details that were thrown your way.

That clarity gets fuzzier once comprehension of diagnosis takes shape. You are about to dive into biology that will leave you scrambling to remember high school basics, and almost certainly have you pulling up Doctor Google. Medical jargon is difficult to comprehend with a clear head and a doctorate. When it’s your body, your diagnosis, your FUTURE, lengthy Latin-based phrases are confusing and intimidating.

Handling fear

Every cancer patient will face that fear, and there is no “right” or “wrong” way. Some behaviors can have a negative impact on your physical or mental well-being – this is usually NOT the best time to adopt a “go out with a bang” mentality – but generally, how a person deals with a diagnosis is unique to that person. Some level of anxiety following cancer diagnoses is common.

As there is no one good way to handle fear, focusing on eliminating some of the negatives can help with processing what just happened. Yes, you have a serious disease, one that kills around 600,000 people in the United States every year. That is scary stuff. But almost 1.7 million people are diagnosed with cancer every year; chances are, you will be joining the group of 15+ million survivors.

Skin cancer rates seem fearful as well, until you look into them. Over 90% of melanoma patients live 5 years or longer; similar statistics exist for early-stage melanomas. So if you are one of the 73,000+ people diagnosed with local melanoma (that has not spread to lymph nodes), you have less than a 2% chance of dying from melanoma in the next 5 years. Not exactly the Fountain of Youth, but a whole lot less scary for a huge part of the melanoma population.

If you are one of the 3 million people diagnosed this year with a non-melanoma skin cancer, you have an even better reason to put those fears to rest – a scant .001% of you die from your cancer. Sometimes, understanding the numbers behind the diagnosis makes the horror stories and internet searches seem a little less daunting.

About those fears

Still, statistics can only do so much to alleviate fear. A cancer patient will have plenty of fears to conquer.

  • Fear of the unknown.
  • Fear of needles. (Get used to ’em.)
  • Fear of mortality.
  • Fear of the doctor’s office.
  • Fear of the future.
  • Fear of recurrence.
  • Fear of what will happen to my family if, God forbid, well…

The biggest things to understand about that awful feeling in the pit of your stomach is that it is normal, and that most people in your shoes are feeling it, too. You are not alone. So, even if you fear EVERYTHING else, don’t fear going through this solo. There is another person, another patient, a group of “another’s”, willing to help you navigate through this journey. You will find that there are many out there who share similar fears, and that, for most, connecting with those people makes fears somewhat easier to process, to deal with, and to accept.

My fears

I could never tell another patient what to be or not be fearful of; it is a deeply personal part of their diagnosis. I can share my fears so that others may empathize; so that others may see that “Hey, this guy is saying how I feel!”

I feared never watching my daughter in a dance recital. I feared never playing football on the beach with my son. I feared the awful stress a widowed wife would encounter, and how it would negatively affect her and our children. I feared financial toxicity of treatments would persist long after I was gone. I feared being overly mourned by family and friends, to the detriment of their own happiness. I even feared being forgotten or replaced – if you want to have the most uncomfortable conversation of your life, ask your spouse about “family planning” in case one of you was to die young.

These and plenty of others, they are OK. It’s extremely, extremely human to have wild emotional swings after you get diagnosed. Do NOT let that stop you from confronting your fears, talking about them, sharing them with someone you love or trust or who “gets it”. They will not just go away.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.


  • BHPen99
    2 years ago

    My biggest fear was the fear of suffering. I’m not afraid to die, I just don’t want to suffer, no one does. I watched my dad die of lymphoma over 8 years with 2 different rounds of 8 chemo treatments and he suffered, a long horrific death. I went through 2 Melanoma surgeries this past summer and am all alone. I too feared going back into the doctor’s office and still get anxiety waiting on test results, still waiting on my 3D mammogram, should hear this week. I do fear that it is all over my body since he’s removed 20 spots by Cryosurgery, 2 were precancerous. He’s says it’s like whack a mole, just wait to see where it pops up next. Everyone comes out of the woodwork with their own horror stories and I heard several which scared the daylights out of me. One showed me vivid photos which I was not prepared to see. But she told me the truth, the dreaded 4 inch wide excision surgery scar. I’m coming to grip that this is part of my story. I’m the fair skinned, blue eyes, once blonde hair that is typical who tanned in my teens out in the sun. I stay out of the sun since I suffered a heat stroke in 2015 and I do wear my sunscreen. But better a scar than a cancer!!! Prayers for all involved with this horrible disease of cancer. Look around you, there are always ones in a lot worse shape than yourself. Be diligent but get outside your own head because you made it and life goes on. No one is promised tomorrow. Live for today!!!

  • Eileen.B moderator
    2 years ago

    I’m so sorry your dad suffered for so long, @BHPen99. To lose him after all that is terribly sad. Your last two sentences really touched me; such wise words.

    Fear can be paralyzing — but wow, you’re powering through! It’s impressive how you’ve found a way in ‘no way.’ Thanks so much for sharing your story. I do know *just* what you meant when you said you are ‘all alone,’ but please know we’re here for you. If you need support, don’t hesitate to reach out here. -Eileen, Team

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