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A Cancer Diagnosis: What to Do Next?

Experts explain how to take control of your life after a cancer diagnosis.
By
WebMD Feature
Reviewed by Paul O'Neill, MD

"Cancer" may be the most frightening word in medicine. Life changes suddenly and profoundly after a cancer diagnosis. Initial shock gives way to a realization of the tremendous physical, emotional, and spiritual challenges that lie ahead.

Beyond the emotional turmoil that accompanies a cancer diagnosis, patients face a practical necessity: to develop a plan to live with and fight cancer.

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A cancer diagnosis is likely to feel overwhelming. But resources are available to support you every step of the way. WebMD can help you get started on the journey.

After a Cancer Diagnosis: Time to Take Control

People often enter a "shock phase" after a cancer diagnosis, says Joy Fincannon, RN, MS, clinical nurse specialist in psychiatric nursing with the American Cancer Society. Such an initial reaction is perfectly normal.

“But then, you’ve got to take control of the situation,” says Dave Visel, author of Living With Cancer. Many things will be outside your control, but “strive to control the things you can.” 

Here are important steps you can take to manage your life after a cancer diagnosis:

  • Find a partner.  “No one should go through a fight against cancer alone,” says Visel. For many people this will be a spouse, family member or close friend. Pick someone you can talk to openly about serious issues.
  • Get organized. Start a notebook or binder to coordinate appointments, doctors’ phone numbers, and the information you collect along the way. Take it with you to each medical appointment, and keep notes on your test results and treatment options. Start a running list of questions to ask your doctor on your next visit. 
  • Get informed. Take steps to learn more about your cancer diagnosis and treatment options -- but do so at a pace that is comfortable for you. “For some people, a lot of information is exactly what they need,” says Katherine DuHamel, PhD, health psychologist with Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York. “Others might not want too much right away.” 
  • Be sure to consult only unbiased, trustworthy sources when you do your research. Begin with the web sites for the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute. 
  • Consider a second opinion. Cancer treatment is complicated, and different doctors are likely to have different philosophies and approaches. A second opinion can also help you feel more confident in your treatment plan. Some insurance companies require a second opinion. The R. A. Bloch Cancer Foundation provides a list of second-opinion centers free of charge. For the closest center to you, call 800-433-0464.

After a Cancer Diagnosis: Taking a 'Whole Life' Approach

A cancer diagnosis touches every area of your life, so your plans for managing after your cancer diagnosis should do so as well.

Take an active role in medical and treatment decisions. Given the complexity of cancer treatment, you may feel you should take a back seat to your doctors. But according to Michael Fisch, MD, gastrointestinal oncologist at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, patients and families should “realize early in the process that they are crucial members of their own health care team.”

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