Coping with a diagnosis

The emotional impact of an ovarian cancer diagnosis affects everyone differently. Get advice on how to cope and find out what support is here for you.

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Being diagnosed with ovarian cancer can come as a big shock, even if you had symptoms. Here we look at ways of dealing with an ovarian cancer diagnosis and its impact on you emotionally.

Dr Alison Farmer is a psycho-oncology nurse specialist and was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in 2001. Below she shares her insights into how you may feel after a diagnosis. 

Coping with a diagnosis

“You might have been expecting your diagnosis or it might have been a complete shock. Either way, it’s never easy. Some of what the doctor said may not have sunk in and you may have to ask for the information to be given to you again. The stage of your cancer may not be relevant to how you’re feeling at the moment. It’s the fact you have a diagnosis of cancer that’s distressing. You may be feeling a range of emotions from sadness to anxiety, or perhaps hopelessness and fear. It’s also common to feel angry. The anger might be directed at your doctor, your family, or even at yourself.

You may feel focused on trying to understand why you got cancer. Unfortunately it’s not always possible to know why some people get cancer and this can be frustrating.

We are all individuals and cope with a diagnosis of cancer in different ways. Some people see cancer as a challenge to overcome. Others would rather not talk or think about it. Some people find a diagnosis of cancer can cause low mood (depression). All these emotions are normal and understandable, particularly just after diagnosis.”

Target Ovarian Cancer supports anyone affected by ovarian cancer to help you cope with a diagnosis. Take a look at our support services.

Cancer Research UK also has lots of information to help you cope with a diagnosis and manage your emotions.

Coping during treatment

“You may have a range of treatments that lie ahead and these can be in a different order to others with an ovarian cancer diagnosis. If you're having surgery you may want it done quickly so that the cancer can be removed, or you may be dreading it as it may mean the end of your ability to become pregnant.

Facing the first dose of chemotherapy can be particularly hard as we all have an image in our heads of what it will be like. A lot of myths surround chemotherapy. The image we have of it from TV or films can be quite false. There are many different chemotherapy drugs and we don't all react to them in the same way. The doctors and nurses will tell you what side effects to expect, but each person will react slightly differently so be sure to let them know how you feel throughout your treatment.

At each clinic appointment the doctors and nurses will ask you how you are. One of the things you may be feeling is extreme tiredness. Sometimes doctors forget to ask us about tiredness and some of us think it’s not worth mentioning the fact that we’re exhausted because we think it is understandable. It may also be tempting to downplay side effects of treatment and keep them to yourself so that it looks like you are coping better than you are. Looking back, I’m not sure why I felt I had to give the impression of coping really well and I regret not putting my feet up more. If you are unusually tired, or have other side effects, do speak to the doctors and nurses about it as there may well be something they can do to help.”

Read more about treatment and side effects.

Anita, Sarah and Linda share what helped them cope before, during and after chemotherapy:

Anita, Sarah and Linda share what helped them cope before, during and after surgery:

Coping after treatment

Although your treatment team will tell you what happens next, life after treatment can be challenging. You may find that normal life no longer feels ‘normal’, and it may take time for you to process everything that has happened.

"Finishing treatment can be frightening and you may feel vulnerable: the emotional and physical side effects don’t go away overnight. It’s normal to still feel many of the same emotions that you felt when you were given the diagnosis so don’t be hard on yourself. Family and friends might be expecting you to be ‘getting over it’ or may want to wrap you in cotton wool and stop you doing anything. Either reaction can be frustrating. If people are treating you differently, try to tell them how you feel and what you want from them. Let them know you are the same person that you were before you had cancer.

It can take a long time to start feeling better emotionally, and you may still have bad days even after your treatment has ended. As you adjust to your diagnosis and treatment, any feelings of anxiety and depression will lessen and you may experience more good days than bad, but don’t feel pressured to be ‘back to normal’ as soon as your treatment is over. Don’t be too proud to accept all the help you can get and make time to look after yourself."

Worry about your cancer coming back

No one will be able to tell you whether or not the cancer will come back (recur). There’s always a chance that the cancer might return but we don’t know whose cancer will come back and whose will not. The chance of recurrence (the cancer coming back) will depend on a mix of things. This includes the stage of the cancer when you were diagnosed (how much cancer there is and how far it has spread). It also includes your response to treatment.

It's normal to feel worried about the cancer coming back. You might worry about every ache and pain being a sign that it’s back. Many people go through this. Over time you may be able to put this worry to the back of your mind rather than thinking about it all the time, and live life without actively worrying about the cancer returning.

If your anxiety about your cancer returning is getting in the way of everyday life, you may benefit from speaking to a professional about your feelings. 

Watch our coping with anxiety and uncertainties webinar

Led by Dr Shradha Lakhani, Clinical Psychologist, this webinar focuses on coping with uncertainty for anyone living with and beyond ovarian cancer:

If the cancer does come back, your symptoms may or may not be the same as the first time. Symptoms may include:

  • persistent bloating – not bloating that comes and goes
  • feeling full quickly and/or loss of appetite
  • tummy or pelvic pain (below your tummy)
  • needing to wee more urgently or more often than usual.

However, other symptoms may develop. It is important to tell your CNS or GP about anything persistent and unusual for you so that you can get checked out quickly. This is even if it is a slight change. Do not be afraid to talk to them any concerns that you have, as it is always better to get them checked.

Finding support

Support from others with similar experiences

At the time of diagnosis, it’s important for you to have support. Friends and family can be particularly important if you have good relationships with them as they may be experiencing the same emotions as you.

It can help to find people, organisations or groups who have experience of what it means to have cancer. No one except you can truly know how you feel, but there are people out there who will have a good idea. You could try:

Professional support

You may feel you need help from a mental health professional at this time or after treatment has finished. Counselling or therapy can help you understand how cancer fits in with other major life events and help you understand why you're feeling the way you do. There's lots of professional support out there:

  • Psychological support will look at how cancer has affected your life and wellbeing.
  • Counselling gives you the opportunity to speak to someone about your fears or difficulties.
  • Cognitive Behaviour Therapy (CBT) teaches you coping skills to help you with how you’re feeling.
  • Psychotherapy is similar to counselling but this time the therapist will try to find out where emotions or difficulties might be coming from.
  • Mindfulness-based therapies help you focus on the present moment.

If you feel that one of these would help you, speak to your CNS or GP about how to access them. 

Find professional support.

Last reviewed: February 2024

Next review: February 2027

To learn more about our review process, take a look at our information standards.

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What happens next

Read or order our guide for anyone with a recent diagnosis of ovarian cancer for free.