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What to Do After a Cancer Diagnosis

Cancer is frightening. Here are some first steps.

Mature female patient in exam room with doctor

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Helpful advice and steps to take when you've been diagnosed with cancer.

A cancer diagnosis can turn your world upside down. There's shock, fear and the overwhelming "new normal" of needing to make important health decisions regularly. The possibilities can seem paralyzing, but there's work to do. Here's how to get started.

Choose the right doctor

It goes without saying that you'll want a doctor with plenty of experience in treating your type and stage of cancer. Some of the top cancer centers now have satellite treatment centers, and one may be near you. "Part of our mission is to give all our patients first-rate cancer care, and a vital part of that goal includes making care convenient," says Ephraim Casper, M.D., medical director for the Memorial Sloan Kettering Regional Care Network. "The level of care is exactly the same no matter which location a patient chooses." Be sure to check with your insurance provider about what is covered.

Consider a second opinion

If your cancer is rare, difficult to treat or has recurred, it's a good idea to consult other specialists. "It's never the wrong thing to get a second opinion," says Len Lichtenfeld, M.D., deputy chief medical officer for the American Cancer Society. "In fact, if you want one, and your doctor is not willing to discuss it or appears offended by the question, that's a sign you really need that second opinion."

Take a breath

When you get a cancer diagnosis, your inclination may be to do something fast, but in many cases a couple of weeks to explore your options won't hurt. Ask your doctor how much time you have to choose a treatment plan. "There will be many questions in the beginning," says Christopher Anrig, who counsels cancer patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering Basking Ridge. "Some can be answered immediately, but others may require time and further assessment."

Assemble your team

"Most cancer centers have social workers and nurses who can work with the patient to put together a team to offer services for physical, mental and emotional care," says Kate Clay, an instructor with the Dartmouth Institute for Health Policy & Clinical Practice. This may include physical, occupational and psychological therapy, nutrition and exercise specialists, clergy and meditation practitioners, among others.

Bring a friend to your appointments

Many people who are newly diagnosed with cancer have trouble thinking clearly. "There was so much to absorb," says Laren Watson, author of the forthcoming book WTF?! I Have Cancer? How to Get Through the Hardest Time of Your Life With Strength and Optimism. When Watson was diagnosed with mantle cell lymphoma, her husband went to all appointments and recorded conversations about her disease and treatment options to review later.

Consider a clinical trial

With new cancer treatments coming out all the time, some patients opt to become part of clinical trials, which may allow them access to drugs that are not yet approved by the FDA but which have shown promise in lab testing. The American Cancer Society has a free service that helps patients find clinical trials for their particular diagnosis. Visit cancer.org and search for clinical trials. Or call 800-303-5691 to speak with an American Cancer Society specialist.

Do what feels right

There's no one right way to cope with a new cancer diagnosis. For some people, an in-person support group can be helpful. Others may prefer to keep their diagnosis private or share it only with family and close friends. If you're inclined to share, a private Facebook group or an account on CaringBridge.org can keep loved ones informed without broadcasting your condition to a wider audience.

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