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Becoming a Proactive Cancer Patient

Experts explain what newly diagnosed cancer patients need to know to help fight their disease.
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WebMD Feature

Approximately one out of every two American men and one out of every three American women will have some type of cancer at some point during their lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society.

This year almost 1.4 million Americans will hear the words "You've got cancer," and in that instant their lives will be forever transformed.

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About This PDQ Summary

Purpose of This Summary This PDQ cancer information summary for health professionals provides comprehensive, peer-reviewed, evidence-based information about the treatment of breast cancer and pregnancy. It is intended as a resource to inform and assist clinicians who care for cancer patients. It does not provide formal guidelines or recommendations for making health care decisions. Reviewers and Updates This summary is reviewed regularly and updated as necessary by the PDQ Adult Treatment...

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Bianca Kennedy heard them five years ago, and, like most people, her initial emotion was shock, followed by the question, "Am I going to die?"

Kennedy, now 40, was diagnosed with early breast cancer when her then 38-year-old sister was battling the disease for the third time.

"My sister was grossly undertreated the first two times, and I learned from her experience," Kennedy tells WebMD. "When I was diagnosed I didn't agonize about how aggressively to treat my cancer because I had seen what she what she went through."

What Should You Do?

Kennedy ended up having both breasts removed, followed by chemotherapy and breast reconstruction. She now counsels newly diagnosed patients as a volunteer for Y-ME, a 24-hour support hot line staffed entirely by breast cancer survivors.

She knows firsthand the importance of being an involved, educated patient, but she says most people need time to come to terms with their diagnosis.

"It is common for people who have just been diagnosed to be overwhelmed with all the information they are getting and the choices they are being asked to make," she says. "You are bombarded with facts and figures and statistics, and it is really hard to keep a cool head. But the choices you make are critical and they may impact the rest of your life."

So what are the most important things newly diagnosed patients can do to maximize their odds of beating cancer? WebMD posed this question to doctors, patient advocates, and cancer survivors, and some common themes emerged. They included:

Get the Facts

Everyone interviewed for this story agreed that education is critical. That means learning all you can about the specifics of you own cancer and how to best treat it. This is especially important for diseases like breast cancer and lymphoma, where treatments vary greatly.

"I have seen people waste a lot of precious time researching the wrong thing because they didn't really understand their cancer," says Joan Arnim, who manages the patient advocacy program at Houston's M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. "It is often a good idea to ask your doctor for recommendations about where to get information about your particular cancer."

Know Your Information 'Comfort Level'

While some patients go into overdrive learning all they can almost immediately, others either don't feel comfortable doing this or don't want to know too many specifics.

Internet-savvy family members or friends can be called on when patients can't do their own research.

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