You're Told You've Got Cancer. Now What?

When Brooke Budke discovered she had melanoma, she could barely believe her ears. She remembers her doctor's words. "Your results are malignant," he told her. "You have cancer."

She stood in shock, with little idea what to do next. "I was terrified," says Budke, a 32-year-old who lives in Leawood, KS, and is an executive at Title Boxing Club.

No matter how you get the news, it's normal to feel overwhelmed at first. Sit down and take a breath. Give yourself time to absorb what you've heard. Then you'll be able to plan your next steps.

Educate Yourself

First, collect the facts. This begins with your doctor. Ask lots of questions.

"Find out where the cancer started and if it spread to your lymph nodes or other parts of your body," says Louis B. Harrison, MD, a radiation oncologist at Moffitt Cancer Center in Tampa, FL.

Find out which stage it's in. The lower the number, the less it has spread.

Learn more about the type of cancer you have:

  • Can it be cured?
  • Does it grow quickly or slowly?
  • What are the treatments?
  • Will I have side effects from treatment?

Create a File

"Pick up a three-ring binder and collect every piece of critical information pertaining to your case," says Nancy Brook, MSN, NP, a nurse practitioner at Stanford Healthcare in Palo Alto, CA.

Include things like your lab reports, notes about your surgery, and results of scans and blood tests. Bring it to every appointment.

Get a Second Opinion

You may feel funny about asking for one, but most doctors recommend it, and some insurance companies say you need to do it.

A second opinion can help you understand your situation and give you a better sense of control. It's important to feel confident about your treatment team, even if it takes an extra week or two, Brook says.

Budke was persistent in her efforts to get a second opinion. Most of the doctors she contacted were booked. But she and her mother, who helped coordinate her care, made calls until someone agreed to see her right away.

Try to go to a different type of specialist, Harrison says. If you have prostate cancer, for example, you may get one opinion from a urologist and another from a radiation oncologist.

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Decide on Treatment

Once you know the facts, like the type of cancer and what stage it's in, you'll be ready to work with your doctor on a treatment plan.

Treatments can have side effects. Your doctor will help you weigh the pros and cons so you can decide what's best for you.

Get Care From a Group of Experts

"Most cancers should be treated by a team," Harrison says. It's a made up of specialists who will handle different parts of your care and work together.

If you live close to a cancer center, go there, Brook says. "These centers are often most up-to-date on the latest research and clinical trials."

Be Part of the Team

You're a key part of the group that treats you. Ask questions. Learn about your options. If you don't feel comfortable or your doctor doesn't listen to your concerns, find another one.

Ask a friend or family member to go with you to appointments. They can help if you find it hard to focus and remember details. "It's another set of ears," Harrison says.

Talk to Family and Friends

Who to tell and when to do it are personal decisions.

You may think hiding it will protect people close to you, but that doesn't always work. They may suspect something's wrong. When they find out, they may be upset that you kept it secret.

"I think it's important to tell friends and family," Harrison says. "Knowing the truth removes a lot of tension and everyone gets on the same page. This is one of the most important moments in your life. This is the time for friends and family."

You may think you need to be strong and handle things on your own. But make sure you reach out to those who love you to get the emotional backing you need. "Support matters," Brook says. "Research has documented this."

You may also want to join a support group. You'll meet people who understand just what you're going through, and they can give you advice about how they manage things. "Many groups are virtual and online, so you can participate from the comfort of your home and office. There are even groups for most every kind of cancer on Facebook," Brook says.

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A therapist or cancer coach can help you work through your feelings and get through your treatment. Your doctor or hospital can help you find one.

Family support made all the difference to Budke. Eleven years after her melanoma diagnosis, she's cancer-free and feels healthy and strong. Looking back, she says her mother's encouragement was critical to getting through such a tough time. "Ultimately," she says, "I attribute so much of my recovery to my mom."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Laura J. Martin, MD on May 24, 2016

Sources

SOURCES:

Nancy Brook, MSN, NP, nurse practitioner and faculty member, Stanford Healthcare.

Louis B. Harrison, MD, FASTRO, radiation oncologist, Department of Radiation chair, Moffitt Cancer Center.

American Cancer Society: "After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families."

National Cancer Institute: "Finding Health Care Services."

© 2016 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.

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