Ovarian Cancer

Psychological impact

The diagnosis of ovarian cancer evokes many different emotions. A few had suspected they might have cancer and had not been particularly surprised, although some were taken aback to hear that it had spread. However, many were shocked. 

Several women described a sense of numbness, confusion or disbelief. Some could not concentrate on what their doctor was saying or even remember their own address or phone number. Two women said that on leaving the hospital after learning their diagnosis they went shopping in a daze and bought things they did not need.

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Although women sometimes felt relief that their symptoms had been explained, others felt frustrated or angry that the cancer had not been found sooner. One woman could see no escape from the cancer and felt trapped.

Some had reacted quite calmly to the diagnosis and decided it was something they just had to deal with. People who receive the diagnosis calmly sometimes react emotionally later. One lost her appetite for five days and was prescribed an antidepressant. Another had to wait five weeks for her diagnosis after having a biopsy, which she felt contributed to her having a nervous breakdown and being admitted to a mental hospital during that time. When later told she was lucky because her cancer had been caught early she didn't feel lucky.

The diagnosis can be particularly frightening when it is unclear what will happen. Women may not know anyone else with ovarian cancer and can feel isolated. Some assumed they would not live much longer and began to prepare wills and plan funerals.

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A woman whose cancer had been diagnosed at an early stage and who only required removal of her ovaries, found it difficult to adjust to normal life after her operation despite the excellent outlook. Another said she needed time after her treatment was finished to come to terms with what had happened.

In addition to dealing with their own emotional reactions to their illness, some women had difficulties in dealing with the reactions of family and friends. One decided to end her already strained marriage because her husband was an alcoholic and could not look after her or their children. A woman who was used to helping other people with problems felt guilty at needing help when she was ill. She was glad that she had no immediate family to be affected by her illness.

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Women also talked about later psychological effects of their illness. Some felt guilty that they had so far survived when others had died, but others talked about the positive effects of having a serious illness. They sometimes found that having cancer made them re-evaluate their lives and put things into perspective. It taught them to value what was important in life and to be more understanding of other people's problems. Some felt stronger, more confident and able to deal with other problems more easily. Several said they lived for today and took opportunities to do things now that they might otherwise have put off until later.

Some said they now made time for themselves, only doing what they wanted to do, when they wanted to do it, and not allowing themselves to be pressured into doing things they didn't want to do. Illness can sometimes make people seem self-centred - one reflected that she had enjoyed the attention she received from health professionals and friends, and craved it when it ceased during her remission. Another thought she had gone through a selfish period at first, but that it had balanced out in time.

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The commonest long-term psychological problem was knowing that the cancer could return. Some feel that they become hypochondriacs for a while, imagining that anything could be a sign of the cancer coming back, or alternate between optimism and worry. However, others had managed to put it behind them and found it hard to believe that it had happened to them because they now felt so well (see 'Facing the future').

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See ‘Coping strategies’ and ‘Other sources of support’ for information about dealing with the emotional impacts of ovarian cancer.

Last reviewed June 2016.

Last updated June 2016.

 

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