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How it Feels to Receive a Cancer Diagnosis

1 in 2 of us will receive a cancer diagnosis at some point in our lives, and chances are that someone reading this has experienced it, or is going through it right now.

Given the prevalence of such a devastating disease, and the fact that October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, we wanted to focus on how it actually feels to receive a cancer diagnosis, and the impact it can have on mental health.

We can try to imagine how it would feel to hear those words: numb, shocked, scared, anxious, possibly all of these and more. But the best way to know is to speak to those who have been through it and ask them how it actually feels. So much of the discussion around cancer is about the treatment, success rates and the physical impact it has. That is all vital to know and understand, and the expertise that the medical profession can provide is outstanding, but it’s only half the story – the mental impact of the experience is just as significant, if not more long-lasting. Once treatment is finished, what remains is the mental and emotional effect of the process that must be managed and coped with, for the individual with cancer as well as their family.

We have been privileged to speak to a long-term friend and colleague who has himself been diagnosed with cancer, and he has kindly agreed to feature in this blog. He will also be in an upcoming episode of our podcast, talking candidly about his experiences.

Kevin was diagnosed with stage 4 metastatic melanoma in 2019. His cancer is unfortunately incurable, and although he has received some immunotherapy treatment, he is living with the knowledge that his life has been significantly shortened due to the disease.

He describes the diagnosis as a wrecking ball:

“I was in shock, being told that you may not have long to live, but there is potential hope in treatment. You go through a living grief as well - you’re angry, you’re looking for answers, your emotions are all over the place…I felt alone, like I was the only person in the world who had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer”.

The diagnosis coincided with the beginning of the covid pandemic and the subsequent need to shield for months, which put all plans to make the most of what time might be remaining on hold, and that significantly impacted Kevin’s mental health:

“I tried to be strong for the family, to present a positive front, but my mental health was on the floor. I realised I had to do something about it. I found a number of support groups, including Andy’s Man Club and a melanoma online forum, where I met other people who were going through the same as me. That was my lightbulb moment, at that point I didn’t feel alone anymore”.

However, despite the seeming hopelessness his diagnosis might bring, Kevin is determined to not only live his life the way he wants to, but to bring hope and positivity to others going through the same thing. Because of how consoling he found it to share experiences with others, he has spent time listening to the stories of those who have been through cancer, and has now written a book full of those valuable insights to comfort people with the message that they are not alone.

“Meeting people who’ve had that lived experience, they can relate to the emotions you’re going through…There was a lot of comfort in sharing your story and hearing other people’s stories…I thought ‘I know I’m not the only person in this situation, so perhaps I could gather stories from other people that have been through this, of all different types of cancer…to let those affected by cancer know that you are not alone’.”

Kevin is not selling the book but giving it away to cancer charities and treatment centres so that it can reach those affected by cancer (which is not just the person diagnosed, but also their family and friends), to benefit from the solidarity garnered through shared emotions, along with coping mechanisms and suggestions for things that may help.

Perhaps a slightly ironic aspect of the whole story is that Kevin feels that cancer has actually had a positive impact on his life. He and his wife have realigned their priorities and rebalanced their life accordingly:

“We decided we were going to change our lives…we’re in a better place physically and mentally, and we’re living a more fulfilled life, and the strange thing is, that probably wouldn’t have happened without cancer”.

So there is an uplifting message in all of this: that a shocking diagnosis can spur us on to live the life that makes us feel truly fulfilled and content. The trick is to realise that without waiting for a (sometimes catastrophic) catalyst to urge us to do so.

Kevin’s greatest piece of advice is ‘don’t do this alone’, so if you or a loved one are living with a cancer diagnosis, reach out for help to guide and support you through it. Macmillan is a great place to start – they can help with practical issues such as finances and treatment support, but they also have a range of counselling, support and buddy programmes to help provide reassurance and emotional support. Maggie’s centres are also a wonderful place to go to meet others in a similar situation. There may also be groups specific to the type of cancer you are diagnosed with, which may offer more specific support, as well as groups that focus on the mental health impact of a diagnosis.

If you are a cancer centre or charity interested in obtaining copies of the book, please contact Kevin on the details below:

Kevin Donaghy

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