What to Do After a Cancer Diagnosis

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.

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 Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on October 19, 2020



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.

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