Fear while waiting for an oncological diagnosis - how to deal with it?

As can be read in many scientific studies, which is also confirmed by the practice of psychologists, waiting for the diagnosis is usually worse for the patient than the diagnosis itself. This happens, among others, because the diagnosed person has a sense of loss of control, which is necessary for the proper functioning of a person. Patients often report that they feel "suspended in a vacuum", lost, fearful, do not have any plan of action. With a little effort, this state of affairs can be changed, and waiting for a diagnosis does not have to be a nightmare.


The situation when a patient hears a diagnosis can be very aggravating. How to deal with this fear?

Anxiety awaiting diagnosis - causes

We've all experienced fear at some point. We feel it in various situations, especially when we believe that our health or life or that of our loved ones is at risk. An anxious person will naturally try to avoid this unpleasant feeling. The reaction to the fear of cancer may be abstaining from examination, rationalized e.g. with the thought: "if I don't know about something, it doesn't exist" or explained by the lack of time.

Such procedure poses a threat to the patient, because in cancer the chances of cure depend on the stage of the cancer, so the later the diagnosis is made, the worse the prognosis.

Being diagnosed with cancer evokes great emotions in the patient and it is understandable. According to statistics, in 2019, cancer accounted for 24% of all deaths. of all deaths, which ranks cancer mortality in second place in OECD countries, right after cardiovascular disease [1].

The fear of waiting for an oncological diagnosis is usually very strong, because cancer is associated with a slow, painful death - a sentence. An important role in the process of diagnosis is played by individual ways of coping with stress.

Why do patients delay the decision to see a doctor?

In the case of cancer, rapid diagnosis is crucial for prognosis. Unfortunately, many patients see a doctor when the cancer is already in an advanced stage. There may be several reasons for such situations. First of all, cancers in the early stages may not cause any symptoms or symptoms may be confused with other, less serious diseases.

However, in order to precisely explain the reasons for delaying the decision to undergo diagnosis and treatment, in the literature on the subject, scientists have presented three basic stages of the decision-making process that are associated with delay:

  • first, the patient must become aware that he or she is sick. When it delays this stage, we are dealing with a delay in assessment (of the disease). This is the period between the onset of the first symptoms and the recognition of being ill;
  • then decide that you need professional help. If this decision is delayed, we can speak of a delay in diagnosis, which becomes the period between acknowledging the fact of being sick and admitting that medical attention is required;
  • the last third stage - delay in making a decision about treatment. This is the period between finding out that you need medical attention and going to the doctor [2].

At each of these stages, we are dealing with a variety of factors related to delay, including:

  • whether the symptoms are painful for the patient. In the case of cancer, the first symptoms are often underestimated due to their non-specificity - they are explained by other, harmless conditions;
  • whether you have experienced similar symptoms before. If this is the case, patients usually delay the decision, thinking that the symptoms are not serious. In addition, the patient may imagine the negative effects of a possible disease - as a result, he will be afraid of the need for surgery or long-term diagnosis;
  • at the last stage, which is the delay in making a decision about treatment, the sensory aspect and thought processes caused by the analysis of symptoms may give way to practical factors, eg fear of the costs of possible treatment [2].

How to provide information to the patient about the oncological diagnosis?

The role of the doctor - patient relationship in taming fear

The patient's relationship with the doctor has a very large impact on the level of anxiety in the patient waiting for the test result, as well as in the further treatment process. The patient's later well-being, thoughts or fears depend on how the problem is presented to the patient. When receiving information that diagnostic tests are necessary, there is fear and a sense of loss of control, which is why it is important to approach the person lost in the diagnostic process with empathy and understanding. It is worth paying attention to the time devoted to the patient and an in-depth explanation of the problem. Thanks to the relationship created in this way, the patient will be more aware and willing to cooperate. He will see the purpose in his actions, follow the recommendations and feel responsible for the recovery process.

It is good practice to use a conversation model in which the patient is the partner and the main character. It is recommended to be patient-oriented, characterized by openness, positive assessment, acceptance and respect for the patient, and providing care regardless of the conditions. Thanks to this approach, the patient will feel more at ease and will gain confidence in the doctor, he will also be more willing to cooperate.

Active listening (attending behavior), i.e. a conversation technique characterized by:

  • interest,
  • readiness to listen,
  • the ability to listen,
  • being fully present.

Thanks to this technique, the patient has e.g. feeling that he is understood and that the doctor is interested in his thoughts and feelings [3].

Methods of taming fear

The diagnostic process can take a long time because it depends on many factors. These include: the nature of research, which often takes time, or the low availability of specialists who are able to evaluate the results. It is worth being aware that anxiety appearing while waiting for a diagnosis can be minimized.

Before we move on to the methods that allow you to survive this difficult time and tame fear, it should be noted that it is very important to adjust the patient to the new situation. Each of us has our own learned methods of behavior, patterns of reacting and coping with stress. While waiting for a diagnosis, it is important to realize that at this moment we have no influence on the test results. Worrying and plotting black scenarios will not make us feel better. It is worth trying to stay calm and resolve that if negative thoughts arise, they will be responded to with positive ones. However, if we are unable to respond in this way, here are some more rules:

Give yourself space to express your emotions and thoughts

While waiting for a diagnosis, various scenarios arise, usually negative. One day we may feel a little better, another time our motivation to do anything may decrease. Let's not try to suppress our feelings, emotions or thoughts at all costs. Let's not block them unless we feel that we can't deal with them anymore, then we can use the distraction technique, which is discussed below. Let's allow ourselves to cry, which often gives relief, lowers blood pressure, calms down. Social support is also very helpful in dealing with anxiety. If we feel such a desire, need, let's not be afraid to talk about our emotions with loved ones. Let's also give ourselves time to be alone with ourselves - if we feel that this is what we need at the moment.

Let's consider whether we are afraid of a specific issue: pain, suffering, further examinations, or is it an unspecified fear. In such an assessment, a visit to a psychologist who will provide appropriate support and intervene can help us. It will help us tame fear, uncertainty, a sense of lack of control, as well as indicate, for example, appropriate relaxation techniques.

Use relaxation techniques

In psychology, there are many methods to reduce the level of tension, such as:

  • Deep breathing

    It consists of slowly taking deep breaths in and out while concentrating on the breath. Inhale should be calm, take place through the nose, until the whole lungs are filled with air, exhale also slowly, performed in such a way that the sound of exhaled air can be heard. Between these actions, you can hold the air for 1 or 2 seconds. Additionally, when doing this exercise, we can imagine that we inhale calmness and composure and exhale tension, associating these states with the appropriate colors

  • A short vacation in the imagination

    Imagination can also help us reduce stress. All we have to do is close our eyes and move to a place that we associate with peace, relaxation and bliss. It can be somewhere where we spent our last vacation or a return to our childhood.

    Then, using sight, hearing, touch, taste, or smell, let's try to imagine the sensations coming from all these senses. Let us recall, for example, how a light breeze over the sea blows over us, let us recall in our imagination the beautiful views we admired during the holidays. When we focus our attention on this aspect to the maximum, we will certainly feel relaxed.
  • Jacobson training - progressive muscle relaxation

    This training consists in tensing and relaxing individual muscle groups (e.g. feet, abdominal calves) in accordance with the lector's instructions. Progressive relaxation can be practiced while lying on your back or sitting in a chair with your head resting. Each muscle group is tensed for 5 seconds and then relaxed. Then this procedure is repeated at least once. This training allows you to perfectly feel and distinguish the state of tension and relaxation.

    Learn more about how to deal with stress.

  • Mindfulness - mindfulness training

    It is a training based on focusing on the activity performed at the moment, internal and external stimuli reaching us. It allows you to focus your attention on a given moment and not to judge experienced emotions or thoughts, not to wonder why they appeared and what they mean. We don't think about the future or the past. We are here and now.

  • Qigong method
  • This method is derived from Chinese medicine and consists in performing joint-relieving exercises: breathing, body posture and movement exercises [3].

  • Take your attention away from your thoughts

    This technique redirects attention to other activities. When we ourselves feel that there are too many thoughts, they are intrusive and we cannot deal with them, let's try to focus on a specific activity, let's go for a walk, start painting, let's focus on solving puzzles, crosswords or mathematical tasks, or house chores.

  • Try to live your current life, do not give up pleasure

    Although at first it may seem that we are not able to function as before, let's try. Let's consider, will sitting at home and constantly worrying about test results help us? Unfortunately no, we have no influence on them. If we go for a massage, to the cinema, for coffee or some other pleasure, our mind will be able to rest for a while.

Seek information only from medical sources

While waiting for a diagnosis, we often want to find out on our own about the disease that we suspect and are afraid of. If we feel the need, it is important to look for information in reliable medical sources from libraries or the Internet. Much of the information available on the web is untrue and can cause even more fear.

Make a schedule for your day

A good way to overcome fears while waiting for a diagnosis is to avoid inaction and set small goals to achieve. Therefore, it is usually recommended to create a daily schedule divided into specific hours and activities that we intend to undertake. This will allow you to regain at least a partial sense of control and build motivation to perform further activities. We will fall into the rhythm of the day, thanks to which we will focus on the tasks to be performed, not on the problem.

Do not give up physical effort

If there are no medical contraindications, do not give up exercise: swimming, running or cycling. In this way, our thoughts will calm down and the body will get tired positively. During exercise, endorphins are also released - hormones of joy, thanks to which the mood improves.

Listen to your favorite music

Music can ease the inner tension we feel. Listening to it, we can, for example, evoke pleasant memories related to a given song, move to those nice moments.

How to help a person waiting for a diagnosis?

The support of loved ones is also very important while waiting for a diagnosis. There are no specific rules and recommendations on what to do and what not to do. Often the best solution is simply to be with a loved one and ask what help they need. Maybe she just wants someone to hold her hand or watch a movie together. Let's not impose our will, let's propose, but also try to adapt to the expectations of our loved ones. Let's show care, let's be close to the diagnosed person, so that they feel our support.

Find out how to talk to loved ones about your cancer.

Prezentowanych informacji o charakterze medycznym nie należy traktować jako wytycznych postępowania medycznego w stosunku do każdego pacjenta. O postępowaniu medycznym, w tym o zakresie i częstotliwości badań diagnostycznych i/lub procedur terapeutycznych decyduje lekarz indywidualnie, zgodnie ze wskazaniami medycznymi, które ustala po zapoznaniu się ze stanem pacjenta. Lekarz podejmuje decyzję w porozumieniu z pacjentem. W przypadku chęci realizacji badań nieobjętych wskazaniami lekarskimi, pacjent ma możliwość ich odpłatnego wykonania. Należy potwierdzić przy zakupie badania szczegóły do jego przygotowania.
Date added 13.02.2023
Data ostatniej aktualizacji 14.02.2023