Few things in life are more traumatic than a cancer diagnosis. About half of all men and a third of all women in the United States will receive a cancer diagnosis at some time in their lives, reports Mayo Clinic. In 2016, that’s an estimated 1,685,210 new cases that will be diagnosed.
Life turns on a dime after you hear the word “cancer”. Once the shock subsides, you wonder how you’ll deal with the tremendous challenges on the path in front of you. So many things are outside your control, but you can develop a step-by-step plan that helps you manage the things you can control.
1) Understand your diagnosis
Ask your doctor to use plain language when explaining your condition and prognosis, and bring a friend or relative with you. During this time of emotional turmoil, you might not be able to retain all of the information. Ask them to take notes for you.
2) Obtain a second opinion
Seek out an oncologist for a second opinion, perhaps at a center that specializes in cancer care. Different doctors often take different approaches to complicated cancer care. A second opinion gives you more confidence in choosing your treatment plan, but don’t overwhelm yourself with opinions from several doctors. If the first two opinions you receive are similar, you’ll probably hear the same thing from other cancer specialists.
3) Choose the right doctor for your needs
It’s imperative to find a doctor who will listen to your concerns, address all of your questions and form a working partnership with you. A trusting relationship with your doctor is just as important as your oncologist’s credentials.
4) Explore your treatment options
Ask about the available treatment options and the success rates. Does your aggressive cancer require:
• Radiation therapy
• Participation in a clinical trial
Some cancers present minimal symptoms and little or no pain. Ask your doctor what might happen if you forego treatment.
5) Anticipate and mitigate side effects
Once you and your oncologist plot out your course of treatment, find out what you can expect to experience in side effects. Your doctor will develop a plan to prevent and/or lessen many side effects so you are better able to cope with them. Ask your doctor:
• How sick am I going to be?
• How much energy am I going to have during treatment?
• Will I be able to work during treatment?
6) Get organized
Compile a binder in which you store all of your lab results, doctor contact information, appointment calendar and a list of questions to ask at your next appointment. Having all your information centralized in one portable location makes your multiple medical appointments much less stressful.
7) Keep friends and family close
Numerous studies show that cancer survival rates increase with perceived social support from a large network of family, friends and spouses. If you’re unmarried, find a partner who will act as your chief source of emotional support during this time. Choose someone you can be totally honest with about your feelings and concerns.
8) Acknowledge your limitations
Learn to rely on others, share responsibilities and ask for help when you need it. When someone says: “Let me know if I can do anything for you,” give them a specific task. Can they drive you to an appointment, pick up your child or walk your dog? Do you need groceries, a quick vacuum job or just someone to watch a movie with?
Ask a contact person to set up a website or blog for you—on CaringBridge, for example—that allows you to share your treatment information with family and friends. This saves you from answering the same questions from multiple concerned people, and it gives you tons of emotional support and encouraging words of hope.
9) Consider complementary approaches
Many cancer patients find complementary health approaches, such as supplements, acupuncture, massage and yoga, to be helpful when fighting cancer, especially in dealing with mental and emotional health. Keep in mind that you should never use complementary health approaches in place of conventional cancer treatment, or before discussing these options with your doctor. A fact sheet created by the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (NCCIH) in collaboration with the National Cancer Institute (NCI) can help you understand the safety, side effects and effectiveness of many popular complementary approaches. Remember: Always make safe, informed decisions with the help of your doctor in regards to your cancer care.
10) Put yourself first
Nothing is more important than taking care of yourself after a cancer diagnosis. You need all your time and energy for treatment and recovery. Exercise as much as you can, and sleep when you need to. If you want to share difficult feelings with impartial people, seek out a mental health professional or support group, whether online or in-person, for your specific type of cancer.