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What to Do After a Cancer Diagnosis

Medically Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on April 29, 2021

When you find out you have cancer, it's time to prepare for the next steps.

A cancer diagnosis can bring many changes for you and your loved ones. So start by getting informed and asking good questions. That will help you make smart decisions, care for yourself, and understand what to expect.

Your First Steps

Everyone’s cancer timeline looks different. But there are a few things most people should do when they're newly diagnosed with cancer:

Discuss the specifics. Talk to your doctor about what stage it’s in and what, if anything, could have caused you to get it.

Staging is how doctors describe how much cancer is in your body and how far it’s spread. This helps them decide whether you need more tests. It also gives them an idea of the treatment you’ll need and how you might react to it. Ask your doctor to explain your cancer stage and how it affects you.

Make sure you know the name of your cancer, where it is, how large it is, and whether it has spread. Ask whether it's a fast- or slow-growing type of cancer.

Also, ask your doctor about what could have caused or contributed to your cancer. Doctors can’t trace all cancers back to a source. But some things raise your risk for certain cancers. They include your:

Ask your doctor what you can do to manage your risk factors.

If possible, take a friend or family member with you for this discussion. You'll have a lot of information to take in, which can be difficult when you're feeling stressed. They can help you remember and process what your doctor says.

Take time to cope. After a cancer diagnosis, you may feel scared, angry, sad, or shocked. You might need some time to adjust to these emotions.

If you need help to manage your feelings try:

  • Counseling and support groups. In one of these groups, you can get advice from a professional or talk to other people who have cancer. Most cancer centers and doctors’ offices offer these. Ask your doctor where to learn more about them.
  • Family support. Reach out to your family and friends for emotional support as you adjust. You may also want to speak with a religious leader for spiritual care.
  • Medication. In some cases, your doctor may prescribe sedatives to help you relax or sleep during uncomfortable times. Ask your doctor if this is a good option for you.
  • Self-care. Each day, take some time to focus on things you enjoy. Meditate, cook, paint, watch a movie. Some people with cancer keep journals to express their feelings. If you feel up to it, exercising can help you feel better.
  • Focus on the good. It's not always easy. But it’s best to stay hopeful during your cancer journey. If you concentrate on the things you can control, rather than what you can’t, you can improve your quality of life.

Look Into Treatment

Your doctor will talk to you about which treatments are best for you. They’ll tell you the pros and cons of each and allow you to ask questions.

When you're making these decisions, remember that cancer treatment changes and improves all the time. What was best for someone in the past might not be the top choice for you now.

Ask your doctor about the success rate and side effects of each treatment. This will help you decide which options you could handle. Weigh your choices based on what you’re comfortable with.

Prepare for Expenses

Treatment for cancer can be very expensive. There could be unexpected costs if your insurance plan doesn't cover everything that you need. You may have to pay for some or all of the fees for things like:

  • Office and clinic visits
  • Lab and imaging tests
  • Drugs
  • Rehab
  • Procedures
  • Transportation and lodging (if you have to travel for treatment)

You might also have expenses for things that aren't directly tied to your treatment, like:

  • Counseling
  • Child and elder care
  • Help with household tasks, like cleaning or cooking meals
  • Assistance with financial or legal matters, including writing a will

It's important to learn as much about your treatment as you can before it starts. Don't forget that it's different for everyone. Plus, getting any questions answered can help you plan for what's to come.

Some questions you might want to ask include:

  • How long will I be in treatment?
  • What could this treatment plan cost? Are there options that may not be as expensive?
  • How much of my treatment costs will I have to pay myself?
  • Do I need to get approval from my insurance company for any part of my treatment before it starts, including hospital services?

You might also want to ask to speak with an oncology financial counselor or social worker. They may be able to help you find financial assistance. Your medical team can put you in touch with one.

Also be sure to know everything you can about your insurance policy, including:

  • Terms
  • The doctors, hospitals, and clinics that are in-network
  • What out-of-network services will cost

Most health care facilities have financial departments that take care of insurance issues. Ask a member of your team if someone can help you understanding claims and codes.

With everything that could be on your plate during treatment, it might help to ask a family member or close friend to help you keep track of costs. They could also go to your appointments to ask questions about the financial end of things.

Second Opinions

You may want to get another doctor’s thoughts on your cancer diagnosis. This might be the case if you have a rare type of cancer or if your doctor doesn’t specialize in cancer. Another point of view can also help you decide on a treatment.

Tell your doctor that you’re interested in other opinions and ask them for referrals. Look for a practice or center that specializes in cancer care.

If two doctors give you similar information, you probably don’t need to seek a third opinion. You’ll most likely hear the same advice from there on.

WebMD Medical Reference

Sources

SOURCES:

Mayo Clinic: “Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next.”

American Cancer Society: “Understanding Your Diagnosis,” “After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families.”

Canadian Cancer Society: “Sedation.”

Bradley Strnad, MD, vascular and interventional radiology specialist.

American Cancer Society: "Things to Know About the Cost of Your Cancer Treatment."

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Understanding the Costs Related to Cancer Care."

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