Despite cancer being one of the most prevalent diseases in the world, receiving a diagnosis still comes as a shock. In this article, we offer advice from both healthcare specialists and those who went through cancer on how to cope with this diagnosis.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), cancer is one of the most widespread diseases worldwide. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) estimate that, in the United States alone, there were approximately 1,685,210 new cases of cancer in 2016.
What are some practical ways that could help you to cope with the shock of a cancer diagnosis, and allow you to make the best decisions for yourself?
Medical News Today have spoken with healthcare professionals and explored the experiences of people living with cancer with the aim of bringing you advice on how to face this unwelcome news.
Getting diagnosed with cancer comes as a shock to anyone, but one important way of coping with it is to be well informed. Cancer is often surrounded by an aura of myth, and much of what we think we know about it can be based on hearsay.
So, an important first step is to get as much (specific) information as possible, from both your doctor and other reliable sources.
Dany Bell — a specialist advisor on treatment and recovery at Macmillan Cancer Support, based in the United Kingdom — told MNT, “Being diagnosed with cancer can be a big shock, even if you already suspected you might have it.”
“Cancer is a word that can stir up many fears and emotions,” adds Bell, “but making sure you fully understand your diagnosis can help you feel more in control of the situation.”
The NCI also list a set of suggested questions that you can ask your doctor about your diagnosis.
“If you ever find yourself faced with a cancer diagnosis […] [b]efore you go into a panic mode, I say take a deep breath, be calm, gather as much information as you can about what type of cancer you’re dealing with, what the odds are for the type of cancer that you have, and then go from there, because if you know what you’re dealing with, it’s not so frightful.”
Speaking to your doctor
Often, communication with your physician might feel tricky, since the subject of a cancer diagnosis is always a heavily loaded one. Both you and your healthcare provider might find it difficult to communicate efficiently.
Dr. Ann O’Mara — head of Palliative Care Research in the NCI’s Division of Cancer Prevention — told MNT that there is no magical recipe for success in these cases, but that open communication is very important to ensure that you get the information you need, and that your physician knows how you are coping with your diagnosis.
“If the communication with that physician is causing you to be more stressed out you have to communicate that to the physician,” she said.
“Patients have to […] communicate to physicians if they’re not getting the right information, or if the information is really devastating to them, they have to be open [with] their physician,” Dr. O’Mara emphasized.
The NCI also offer detailed advice on how to approach your healthcare team in order to ensure the best and most effective communication with them.
Symptoms of depression and anxiety are often a natural outcome after a cancer diagnosis. After all, there are so many unknowns to this equation, and this is a journey that will undoubtedly turn your life upside down.
That is also why it’s so important to be able to count on a strong support network.
Approaching friends and family
Bell told MNT that being able to rely on a good support network is always helpful, even though speaking to the people around you about your diagnosis may be a challenge all on its own.
“Telling friends and family you have cancer can be daunting, but many people find that having a good support network around them really helps. You may want to tell those closest to you first. After this, you might find it helpful to make a list of who you want to tell. If you like, you can ask someone you trust to tell people for you.”
“Before telling someone you have cancer,” Bell added, “think about what details you want them to know. Writing this down might help.”
Dr. O’Mara agreed that it’s important to talk about your diagnosis with your nearest and dearest. It may be helpful, she noted, to “start with [your] family, and then with friends.” She also suggested that some might find it easier to tell just one friend to begin with.
“You tell one friend, you tell your closest, your best friend, and you ask them to be […] the sounding board for you, so you’re not spending all of the time on the phone talking to everybody,” she said to MNT.
Additionally, the physical context in which you talk to others about your diagnosis is also important, Bell pointed out.
“Choose a time and place where you’ll have time to talk without being interrupted,” she advised. “Try to be honest about what you know — it’s O.K. to say if you are unsure about anything, or can’t answer all their questions.”
Asking for help
Dr. O’Mara also told MNT that it may be hard for individuals newly diagnosed with cancer to solicit support, even though they may find that friends shower them with offers of assistance.
She suggested to ask for specific, pragmatic help with small things, such as a lift to your next medical appointment, or a cooked meal. Small, targeted actions can go a long way.
“When people come to you and say ‘how can I help you,’ the thing that you can do is give them a task, ask them to do something [specific], […] ask them to make a meal for you,” said Dr. O’Mara.
Finding a dedicated support network
You may also find it helpful to locate a dedicated support group online, or in your own community. There are many kinds of cancer support groups, which you may be able to trace through online searches or by speaking to the specialist by whom you were diagnosed.
Dr. O’Mara explained for MNT that you should easily be able to find a support group just by asking your healthcare provider.
“In most of our cancer centers,” she said, “and even in our local physicians’ offices, any experienced clinicians […] — doctors, nurses, nurse practitioners etc. — usually have a list of local support groups. Oftentimes the hospitals run them for newly diagnosed cancer patients and their families.”
Still, as U.K.-based Dr. Liz O’Riordan — a consultant oncoplastic breast surgeon who has experienced breast cancer — notes, online support networks should not be discounted either.
In her TED talk, she speaks about how she unexpectedly found much-needed emotional, as well as practical, support through social media.
Dr. O’Riordan explains that she “got her own secret tribe” by using Twitter, which helped her to find other healthcare professionals who had been diagnosed with a form of cancer and were about to undergo treatment.
Being able to talk to people who were, or had been, in a similar situation to her was a valuable self-care resource, she says in her talk.
Responses of grief and anger are normal feelings to experience when receiving a cancer diagnosis, but such emotions need not be destructive.
The NCI say that, in addition to discussing your feelings with healthcare professionals and your trusted support group, it may help to keep a journal and write down your feelings, in order to fully process them.
In a vlog, Nance said that these negative emotions can sometimes be used for leverage. For instance, anger helped her to understand that she didn’t want cancer to take hold of her entire life.
“You have every right to get angry, and I almost encourage that you get angry because it is that fire that’s going to make you get up and say ‘you know what, O.K., I’ve got cancer, but I [will not] continue to dwell on the negative aspects of this disease anymore.’ And that’s what I had to ultimately do.”
Don’t let cancer take over your life
“You have cancer, but don’t let it have you,” added Nance.
Cancer may be in your body and affecting the way that you live your life, but continuing some old activities that you took pleasure in, or taking up something new, such as crafting, drawing, or writing, could help you to stay in touch with who you are outside of your health profile.
The NCI suggest “looking for things you enjoy” and shifting more of your mental and emotional focus onto something pleasant and creative. Some gentle exercise, they say, might also prove useful.
“The best thing you can do is to do a little bit of exercise every day. […] I hated getting ready to go out but felt so much better for it, and felt I’d earned the right to veg out on the sofa for the rest of the day,” she says.
Nance candidly explained that “it is a work in progress to learn to live with cancer.” There is no right or wrong way of coping, and what is essential is that you stay in charge of your body and your life.