Coping With a Cancer Diagnosis. Tips for the Patient, and Those Who Love Them

10/12/2015 03:55 pm ET Updated Oct 12, 2016

So you have not been feeling well for some time now, and you have been having some strange symptoms that are causing you concern. You go to your doctor, who runs a series of tests in efforts to get to the root of things. They suggest that there is a chance that these symptoms could be some form of cancer, which is a scary statement to hear. Then you get the unsettling call that you know can't be good news, "I think your results would be better explained in person than over the phone." Typically this is when your heart sinks, as you know something must be wrong if they do not want to discuss your results over the phone. So, you make the appointment to go in and speak with your doctor.

It is strongly suggested that you bring someone with you to your appointment. You will be in a certain level of shock, and are likely to miss things that someone else can catch. It is important to get all the facts and options available to you. Have a list written down prior to the appointment, and have a friend write notes down about what the doctor is saying, as well as address any unanswered questions. While it is shocking to get this diagnosis, you need to make sure that you are part of setting the agenda for this meeting, and that you get all your questions answered. A friend or family member accompanying you can be essential for this.

The Mayo Clinic has a suggested list of questions you should bring with you and ask.

They are:
  • What kind of cancer do I have?
  • Where is the cancer?
  • Has it spread?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment?
  • Can my cancer be treated?
  • What can I do to prevent my cancer from recurring?
  • What is the chance that my cancer can be cured?
  • What other tests or procedures do I need?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • How likely are my children or other family members to get cancer?
  • How will the treatment benefit me?
  • What can I expect during treatment?
  • When should I call the doctor?

The time right after diagnosis, and as you begin your course of treatment can be a difficult one. You are still processing the reality of the situation, you are scared and your mind is going in 100 different directions about things that need to be taken care of, best and worst case scenarios and the many ways this is going to significantly change your life. During this time it is essential to let friends and family help you. This is the time that you need their support and their help with tasks. This can be difficult for individuals who are extremely independent, or who don't want to be a burden others, but this is the time to take them up on their offers. They care about you and they want to help you! Also encourage them to get their own help. They need to talk to people about this as well.

While you're loved ones and caregivers may be putting on a strong face for you, and are telling you they are fine, this may be far from the truth. They are worried, they are frightened that they could lose the person they love and in many ways they feel helpless and incapable. It becomes essential that they build their own support system of family, friends, as well as strongly explore the possibility of support groups and individual therapy. They are dealing with feelings, and they need to connect with others who can uniquely understand them. They also need to say things that they do not feel able to say to the afflicted loved one.

As for the person with the diagnosis, put things in perspective as best you can. Determine what your goals and priorities are, and make them realistic and leave room for unforeseen circumstances that can veer you off track. Once you have all the facts, this is the time to sit down with those you love and decide what is important, what the realities of the situation are, what you are going to be capable of and what you are going to need assistance with. This is the time to let go of stubbornness and pride, and embrace the love and support that is being offered to you.

Reach out and get support from a professional as soon as possible. In my experience, patients diagnosed with cancer take the longest time to come to therapy, from diagnosis to their first session. This is due to the initial shock, information gathering and treatment planning, which take priority. Once they have come to the point where they know they need to and talk to a professional therapist about how they are coping with the many layers and fears of cancer, they are often ingrained in the cancer treatment process. The earlier they see a therapist, the earlier they can get support throughout the various stages of the process. If the therapist can help ease even the smallest of burdens, it seems well worth starting this work earlier than later. Cancer can be a scary word to hear, so having someone who can help you deal with those fears, who will not judge and whom you can say anything to, that you may not be able to say to others, can be an important and cathartic experience. Another option to keep in mind, due to varying levels of health and ability to leave the home, might be to start with, or pursue telehealth platforms such as BetterHelp where patients can meet with a therapist virtually. This would help them communicate with a therapist when they are feeling well enough to do so, and would eliminate the constraints of having to set appointments and office visits.

Additionally there are several amazing community support and educational resources including The Association of Online Cancer Resources and the Cancer Support Community. These communities provide a network of hope and support to those who may be geographically isolated or unable to make regular trips to group sessions.