You’ve Been Told You Have Cancer. Now What?

Medically Reviewed by Carmelita Swiner, MD on June 06, 2022
4 min read

When you find out that you have cancer, it’s a lot to take in. You may feel a flood of emotions, such as disbelief, fear, and anger. And your first questions for the doctor might be, “How bad is it?” and “What are my options?”

After taking some time to start to process the news, you’ll want an action plan. These strategies can help you understand the diagnosis, learn about all the treatment options (including their risks and benefits), set up a care team, and tap loved ones for support as you start out on the path ahead.

Your doctor should have given you information about the type and stage of cancer, treatment options, as well as your outlook or prognosis. But the shock of the diagnosis can make it hard to remember all the details. Check the health records online or follow up so you can write it all down. Then use information from your doctor, and reputable online resources, to learn about your cancer. Knowledge truly is power. It helps you feel better prepared to understand the way forward with the disease.

Your doctor might want to do more tests such as biopsies, bloodwork, or imaging tests like an X-ray or MRI to learn more about your cancer and recommend treatments. You may want to share the results with another health care provider to get a second opinion before you decide on what treatment to start.

If you feel like you need to decide right away, ask your doctor if that’s the case. You might be fine taking a couple of days or a week, or more, to decide. Don’t put pressure on yourself to decide in a hurry if it’s not necessary.

This group could include a patient navigator, oncologist, oncology nurse, social worker, dietitian, pharmacist, psychologist, and clergy (if you’re religious). These experts can answer questions, provide medical services, or offer support to address all of the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment.

Your doctor will base their recommendations on the type of cancer, its stage, and your age and overall health. Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, immunotherapy, or stem cell transplants are some of the broad categories.

In considering treatments, ask about the goal: Is treatment supposed to cure cancer, control its growth, or manage the symptoms? Also ask about the risks (including side effects) and benefits (including how effective the treatment is). Knowing this information will help you make the best decision.

Also, ask your oncologist to help you find clinical trials that are a good fit. These studies test new medications, devices, or procedures. They can be a way to try new cancer treatments before they’re widely available. As with any other treatment, make sure you know what’s involved, so you can decide what’s right for you.

Palliative care is a holistic health care option for anyone with a serious illness, at any stage. It addresses physical, emotional, and social needs during treatment, and it can be offered in the hospital or at home. It may include helping you weigh your cancer treatment options, ease pain or fatigue, help with appetite, address depression, provide caregiver support, and line up paperwork that expresses your wishes about end-of-life decisions. Palliative medicine is available throughout cancer treatment, starting at diagnosis.

When you go through cancer, you need this more than ever. It includes managing stress, which can help improve appetite, ease insomnia, and fight fatigue during cancer treatment.

Take time for your favorite activities, like reading, meditation, yoga, walking, writing in a journal, or listening to music. Be around people who make you feel good. Take time to laugh, get out in nature, or watch movies or TV you enjoy.

There will be times during treatment when you don’t have the same energy as before. But doing things that you love, to the extent that you’re able to, is rewarding. Focusing on ways to feel happy and hopeful can improve your quality of life while you treat the disease.

Medical experts shouldn’t be the only members of your cancer support team. Family and friends will want to offer support, too.

Even if you’re used to being the person who helps others, this isn’t the time to hold back. Think about what would help: grocery shopping or meal preparation, housecleaning, or transportation to medical appointments, or just a friendly ear.

Be specific about what would help and what wouldn’t. Keep in mind that most people mean well but don’t know what you need unless you tell them.

You might also consider joining a support group where you can talk about your feelings with others who are going through cancer treatment.

There are nonprofit groups that help you get financial support and the other things you need during cancer treatment. Ask your cancer care team for recommendations to help cover the cost of treatment, provide transportation to medical appointments, or help access free or low-cost lodging if you need to seek treatment far from home. These programs can help ease some of the burdens of cancer treatment, so you can focus on getting better.