No one ever wants to be told they have cancer. It is something we all fear and dread. If you have recently been diagnosed with cancer, you are probably experiencing a flood of emotions, and you are probably wondering what’s next. There is no denying that cancer is devastating news, but it does not mean your life is over. Millions of people cope with cancer every day. You are not alone.
In the United States, approximately 41 out of 100 men and 38 out of 100 women will develop some form of cancer in their lifetime. Although cancer is the second leading cause of death in the United States, with heart disease being number one, the chance of survival is increasing. Thanks to improvements in treatment and early detection, five-year survival rates have increased about 20 percentage points for all cancers combined. Today, more than 15 million people in the United States have had cancer and are still alive. Some of them no longer have cancer, while others continue to live with cancer.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer, try not to lose hope. There is plenty of help and support available to you and a lot of people who care. Despite your diagnosis, you can take steps to self-empowerment and gain greater control of your health and your life. Here is our plan of action to help you along your journey towards healing.
Cancer is tough. But so are you.
What Cancer Does to the Body
Cancer is difficult to grasp, emotionally and intellectually. Given the seriousness of cancer, it is easy to imagine it as a giant man-eating monster, among other things. In reality, cancer is the uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells.
In the body of a person who does not have cancer, the cells in the body die when they are old, and new cells grow to replace the old cells. In the body of someone who has cancer, this system malfunctions. Old cells do not die, and cells continue to grow and form abnormal cells. These excessive abnormal cells may form a mass or a tumor, although not all cancers, like leukemia, form tumors. Cancer can happen anywhere in the body, to anyone at any age. However, breast cancer is the most common cancer in women, and prostate cancer is the most common cancer in men.
The biggest concern with cancer is that it will spread to other parts of the body and form more tumors. If this happens, there is a greater chance that a vital organ will be affected and unable to function properly. The goal of most cancer treatments is to eliminate cancer cells by removing cancerous tumors and destroying all cancer cells before they move to other parts of the body or interfere with the body’s vital functions.
What to Do After Being Diagnosed With Cancer
Even if you have cancer, you are still in control of the choices you make. The treatment you choose to receive, the way you live your life and the support you reach out for is all up to you. Although your life will change in ways, cancer cannot take away your freedom to choose.
With our plan of action, we hope to help you make informed decisions. We also want to inspire you to share your experience with others and gain a sense of control over your health. Although we cannot guarantee any of these steps will work for you, as everyone copes with cancer differently, we can offer hope. And you are worth every ounce of it. Here’s what to do after a cancer diagnosis.
First things first — you have the right to ask as many questions as your heart desires. No matter what your concerns are, do not be afraid to ask. It is better to hear the truth and know what to expect than to make important decisions in the dark. By knowing all there is to know about your diagnosis and treatment options, you will be in a much better position to design a healing plan that works for you. Therefore, the first step in our plan of action is to ask questions.
If you feel overwhelmed and don’t know where to begin, that’s okay, too. New questions will arise as time goes on. For now, we are happy to help you get started. While it’s not an exhaustive list, here are a few questions to ask your doctor after you are diagnosed:
- What causes the type of cancer I have?
- What stage is my cancer?
- What is my chance of survival?
- Has my cancer spread?
- What procedures will I need?
- What lifestyle changes should I make?
- What are my treatment options?
- Is treatment painful?
- What activities should I avoid?
- How can I find assistance in paying for treatment?
- Can I participate in a clinical trial?
- Who can I reach out to for support?
- Who can I call if I have more questions?
Your doctor should be comfortable answering your questions, and they should make you feel comfortable asking them. If not, you probably want to find a doctor who has no trouble listening to your concerns. You have a right to understand everything you want to know about cancer and cancer treatment.
Sometimes it can be difficult to remember the questions you want to ask, especially when you are under a lot of stress. We recommend writing questions down before your appointment and bringing a notepad with you to take notes. The more you understand about your body and cancer, the better decisions you will make and the less helpless you will feel.
Find the Best Doctor for You
The next step in your plan of action is to find the right doctors. You may have to travel to reach the best doctor for the treatment you need. Also, it is important to get second opinions. Feel free to get as many opinions as you need. You are experiencing a life-changing event, so it’s good to get advice from different people and then form your own opinion. Although friends and family can help you make decisions, make sure you also consider your gut feelings. You want a treatment plan that not only fights cancer but also encourages emotional and mental well-being.
So, what should you look for in a doctor? First, your doctor should make you feel safe and comfortable when asking questions, and you should feel a sense of trust with your doctor. Also, look for a doctor who has experience treating your specific cancer. In general, key qualities to look for in a doctor include:
- They listen to you.
- They explain things in ways you can understand.
- They make you feel understood.
Overall, you want a doctor you connect with. Think about it — you are about to join a partnership with your doctor to get rid of cancer. Like any relationship, you want someone you can communicate with comfortably and well. If you do not feel at ease asking questions, or if your doctor does not explain things to your satisfaction, move on to someone else. Evaluate your doctor by asking yourself these questions after a visit:
- Did the doctor let you ask questions?
- Did you feel like the doctor listened?
- Did the doctor seem comfortable answering your questions?
- Could you understand the doctor?
- Did the doctor ask what your treatment preferences are?
- Did the doctor spend enough time with you?
- Did you feel comfortable around the doctor?
- Is this doctor covered under your health care plan?
- Do their office hours meet your needs?
There are so many different doctors to choose from, and you might be wondering where you can find the right doctor for your needs. You could start by asking your family doctor for help. Or, you could begin your search online. These online directories may send you on the path to finding the best cancer care specialist for you:
- American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS): Allows you to find out if a doctor is board-certified or not
- American Medical Association (AMA): Helps you find the right physician for your needs with their DoctorFinder tool
- American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO): Gives you access to their member database
- American College of Surgeons (ACS): Helps you find a surgical specialist
- American Osteopathic Association (AOA): Lets you search their database for doctors of osteopathic medicine
Empower Yourself With Information
Although doctors are going to be major players on your team, don’t underestimate the power you have to find valuable information. Fortunately, there are thousands of resources available to you online or at the local library. In fact, there are so many resources at your disposal, you might feel overwhelmed at first. Once you know your stage of cancer and type of cancer, you will be able to narrow your research and find specific detailed information.
If you are not much of a researcher, or if you feel too unwell or stressed to do the work, try not to worry. Ask a friend or family member to help you gather information, or give yourself a little time to process your emotions. If you were just diagnosed, you might feel emotionally drained, and that’s ok. You can research whenever you feel ready to take action. Here are some of our recommended resources to help you get started finding the information you need.
There are tons of online resources to help you answer questions or find support, from university websites to cancer survivor blogs. Good places to start with include:
- American Cancer Society: Expert advice, resources, treatment options and pretty much everything you need to know about cancer can be found here.
- National Cancer Institute: A reliable resource for cancer and research information.
- Mayo Clinic: Learn about cancer research, clinical trials or healthy lifestyles with one of the top cancer research institutions in the country.
- Livestrong: Formerly named the Lance Armstong Foundation, Livestrong is about connecting, empowering and informing people with cancer.
That was just a short list of online cancer resources. Feel free to explore whatever you wish. However, try to find information that is legitimate. Ask yourself the following questions to make sure the information you read online is trustworthy:
- Who manages the information? The person or group in charge of the website information should be easy to find on the webpage.
- How does the web address end? Addresses that in .gov or .edu are either government or educational sites and are sources you can usually count on. Sites that end in .org or .com may be a good source, but you have to look closer to make sure.
- What is their purpose? Read about the mission and history of the website before spending too much time with their information.
- How up-to-date in the information? Check the post or publishing date to make sure the information is current.
Health Insurance Resources
One of your biggest concerns after a cancer diagnosis might be health insurance. How do you know if your health insurance will cover the care you need? Here are some resources to help you find the assistance, information and resources related to health care costs:
- Patient Advocate Foundation (PAF): A non-profit organization with a mission to act as a liaison between patients and insurers.
- CancerCare: A resource to answer questions, connect you to financial assistance and show you other helpful organizations.
- Net: ASCO’s patient website. This site lists organizations and other financial assistance resources.
Not everything you read has to deal with cold hard facts. Try to set aside some time to nurture your spirit too. Pick up one of the following books to warm your heart and inspire hope:
- From This Moment On: A Guide for Those Recently Diagnosed with Cancer by Arlene Cotter
- There’s No Place Like Hope: A Guide to Beating Cancer in Mind-Sized Bites by Vickie Girard
- Cancer Hacks: A Holistic Guide to Overcoming Your Fears and Healing Cancer by Elissa Goodman
- When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron
- Help Me Live: 20 Things People With Cancer Want You to Know by Lori Hope
- What Helped Get Me Through: Cancer Survivors Share Wisdom and Hope by Julie K. Silver
Are you the type of person who has always used humor to help you cope with challenges? If so, you are not forgotten. Sometimes, the best medicine is a good laugh anyway. These books are for you:
- Cancer Schmancer by Fran Drescher
- It’s Always Something by Gilda Radner
- Cancer Made Me a Shallower Person by Miriam Engelberg
Make Healthy Lifestyle Choices
Unfortunately, you can’t control cancer. However, you can control your lifestyle choices, and these choices can affect your cancer. Strive to make healthy changes where you can, one step at a time. For the biggest impact on your health, focus on a healthy diet and physical activity.
The food you choose to put into your body can either work to support you in your fight against cancer or against you. Some foods may help slow cancer growth, support your immune system and reduce inflammation. Other foods, like processed meats, are carcinogenic or might exacerbate symptoms and should be avoided. In general, a Mediterranean diet is the recommended diet if you have been diagnosed with cancer. In fact, all Americans could benefit from this diet. Why? A Mediterranean diet is high in cancer-fighting foods like fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts, lean meats and healthy fats — in other words, foods that reduce inflammation. You also want to include a rainbow of fruit and vegetable colors in your diet to make sure you get plenty of anti-oxidants and phytonutrients.
Try to include plenty of the following foods in your diet:
- Cruciferous vegetables: Cauliflower, kale, cabbage and broccoli contain cancer-fighting properties like sulforaphane.
- Berries: All berries contain cancer-fighting phytonutrients. Black raspberries are especially packed with phytochemicals.
- Tomatoes: Tomatoes are an excellent source of lycopene, which may help slow cancer growth.
- Walnuts: Walnuts contain phytosterols, which may help block growth.
- Garlic: Garlic is a good source of phytochemicals.
- Fatty fish: Fish like salmon or tuna contain omega-3 fatty acids. Omega-3s reduce inflammation.
- Green tea: Green tea is a powerful antioxidant.
- Leafy greens:Spinach, kale, collard greens and arugula contain cancer-fight antioxidants, vitamins and minerals.
Remember, these foods are not a cure. They are just a few more weapons in your cancer-fighting arsenal.
On the contrary, try to reduce your intake of the following foods:
- Animal fats: Fats like butter, cheese, meat and other foods high in saturated fat trigger inflammation.
- Processed meats: Processed meats contain carcinogenic nitrites and nitrates.
- Too much alcohol: Try to stop after one drink.
If you find that you can’t stand tomatoes or tuna no matter how you prepare them, don’t lose hope. Incorporate healthy foods you enjoy as much as you can and don’t beat yourself up if you indulge in a sundae or find that you can’t give up cheese. Moderation is key.
If movement causes pain, increased heart rate or shortness of breath, take it easy and talk to your doctor. Otherwise, physical activity is recommended for everyone, despite a cancer diagnosis. Exercise does your body a lot of good. Here are a few ways exercise benefits your health after a cancer diagnosis, whether or not you started treatment:
- Helps prevent muscles weakness
- Supports body functions
- Improves mental health and emotional well-being
- Strengthens immunity
- Improves strength and flexibility
Overall, exercise boosts your quality of life.
Before starting an exercise program, talk with your doctor. The stage of your cancer and your symptoms will affect what you feel comfortable doing. Don’t push yourself too hard and start slow. Even a few minutes a day is a good place to start. Simple ways to add exercise to your daily routine include:
- Walk around your neighborhood.
- Park your car the furthest spot away and walk.
- Use stairs instead of elevators.
- Join a walking club.
- Clean the house.
- Walk the dog.
- Wash your car.
Aim to walk at least six hours a week at a regular pace. If six hours is too much, even a one-hour walk a week will improve your health. Don’t limit yourself to walking either. Do what is fun for you, whether that’s biking, dancing, yoga or any form of physical activity. Start slowly with ten minutes a day and then work your way up. Try to include strength training in your routine twice a week if you are able.
After a cancer diagnosis, you might have trouble sleeping. You may be coping with physical symptoms, and your mind might race with worry or fear. It’s normal for negative emotions to keep you up at night after a diagnosis. However, if sleep issues persist and affect your daily routine, let your doctor know. Sleep is important, and your body needs adequate sleep to heal. Sleep helps good cells fight cancer cells, and it strengthens your immunity. Therefore, make sure to include stress-reduction and restful sleep in your plan of action.
After a diagnosis, you may feel like you have to take on a lot because you don’t want to burden loved ones. It’s great to feel in control of your health, but it is also beneficial to accept that you are facing illness. And illness is draining. So make sure to allow yourself time to rest and try not too take on too much or set unrealistic expectations for yourself. Friends and family will understand.
If you can’t sleep because you feel depressed or anxious, don’t hesitate to schedule an appointment with a mental health professional. Your outlook and your mental health can make a difference in how you cope and progress. Know that it is normal to feel depressed, anxious, guilty, angry and other negative emotions. Your life has just been flipped upside down, so don’t beat yourself up for it. Take the pressure off — you don’t have to feel positive or happy all the time.
There is no evidence that a positive attitude will make your cancer go away. However, a positive attitude may help you cope with challenges and make better lifestyle choices, which in turn, could affect your health. So if you feel sad, don’t feel guilty. Let yourself feel sad. The last thing you want to do is repress your negative feelings. If sad feelings are lowering your quality of life, realize you deserve a safe place to be heard and to voice your pain. You don’t deserve to suffer in silence. Reach out to a professional or talk to close friends or family members whom you trust.
Overall, stress management, a strong social support system and regular exercise may help relieve insomnia. The National Sleep Foundation recommends adults get seven to nine hours of sleep a night. If you feel you need more than that, listen to your body. Always keep your doctor informed of new symptoms.
Surround Yourself With Support
Being given a cancer diagnosis is a life-changing, high-stress event. You might feel alone, hopeless and like loved ones can’t understand. The emotions you are probably experiencing are powerful, and you do not need to experience emotions alone.
A strong support system will help you replace feelings of grief, sadness or hopelessness with strength, hope and encouragement. Many people are experiencing the shock of a cancer diagnosis as we speak. Others have been battling cancer for years. Join a group that makes you feel comfortable and heard. There is strength in numbers, and you don’t have to handle all of this alone.
There are many different ways to create a support system. Friends and family are important and should be included. However, connecting with other cancer patients or survivors might help you feel less isolated. If you don’t feel comfortable in support groups, there are also online communities you can join from home.
Here are different forms of support to consider:
- Support groups
- Individual counseling
- Online communities
- Telephone support groups
Support group resources:
- ASCO list of general cancer groups
- American Cancer Society search tool to find resources in your area
- Build an online support community throughorg
- Browse the Association of Cancer Online Resources (ACOR) for online cancer communities
Here are a few local groups:
- The YWCA ENCORE Breast Cancer Support Group meets the fourth Tuesday of every month at the YWCA from 6:30-8 p.m. in Gettysburg.
- Help for Oncology Problems and Emotional Support (H.O.P.E.) support groups in New Freedom, Pa.
Which Therapy to Choose
Choosing the right therapy is a tough decision. You might feel overwhelmed with options and ideas. We suggest getting several professional opinions before committing to a treatment plan. You want to go with a plan that feels right to you, but which will also fight your cancer best. Although cancer is natural and cancer cells are your own body’s cells, you likely do not want to leave nature to take care of itself when it comes to cancer. In other words, healthy eating and meditation might help your body fight cancer, but it will not get rid of cancer on its own.
Studies have shown that cancer patients who only used alternative therapies had a much lower survival rate than those who used science. However, you can use alternative therapies in conjunction with modern science to for the ultimate cancer-fighting package. Alternative therapies such as acupuncture, massage and yoga may help improve your state of mind, and they may help you cope with cancer symptoms, but they will not cure your cancer. Overall, it is completely up to you when it comes to designing a treatment plan. Ask experts for guidance, do research and choose what’s right for you.
In closing, a cancer diagnosis does not mean your life is over. Keep living your life. Do the things you enjoy, and plan your days as you always have. Keep your heart open to joy, love and optimism. If you need to cry, cry. It might take time, but hope will build every day. You will still have good days and bad days just like you did before your diagnosis.
And most importantly, know that you are not alone. We want to help you get through this, together. For over 25 years, Gettysburg Cancer Center has been providing compassionate and state-of-the-art cancer care. From the initial diagnosis to follow-up care, we stand by your side. Our team is dedicated to providing only the highest-quality care for each individual. Our mission is not only to beat cancer but also to recognize your emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. We understand how cancer affects all areas of an individual’s well-being, and that every person is unique when it comes to health.
Do you have questions? Concerns? Please contact us today. If you would like to schedule an oncology appointment, please contact us or fill out our online form. We look forward to joining you on your path to healing.