What to do when you first get a cancer diagnosis

What to do when you first get a cancer diagnosis

If you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, you may feel many things: fear, anger, shock, dread, sadness or disbelief. You likely wonder where to go from here. Sandy Pyle, RN, an oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional, shares what to do if you are diagnosed with cancer.

Process your emotions

“You’ll likely experience a gamut of emotions,” says Pyle. “Everyone experiences a cancer diagnosis differently. Most people feel completely surprised and overwhelmed.”

Many even feel guilt.

“You may wonder what you did wrong or how this could have happened to you,” she says. “All of these are valid feelings when you’re told you have a cancer diagnosis. But it’s important to not heap guilt upon yourself. It’s a time to look toward what you’re going to do now.”

Questions to ask your oncologist

Pyle recommends asking your oncologist the following questions:

  • What type of cancer do I have?

  • What stage is it?

  • How serious is this cancer?

  • What are my survival chances?

  • Is biomarker testing available for my cancer? (Biomarkers can determine if you’re a candidate for specific treatments.)

  • What additional testing will I need?

  • What are my treatment options?

  • What are the benefits of these treatments?

  • What are the potential side effects?

  • What can I do during treatment that will benefit me and minimize side effects?

  • Are there any clinical trials available to me? (“A lot of people fear clinical trials because they think they’re a ‘last-ditch’ effort,’” says Pyle. “But clinical trials offer the standard of care or better and can be very beneficial.”)

  • Will other specialists need to be involved? (For example, some chemotherapies affect the cardiovascular system, so you may need to see a cardiologist or pulmonologist for monitoring.)

  • Is there anything else I should know?

When to seek a second opinion

“It’s never a bad idea to ask for a second opinion, especially if you have a more complex form of cancer,” says Pyle.

Getting another opinion can help you feel more comfortable with your treatment approach or give you other options you may feel more comfortable with.

Connect with a social worker

Pyle recommends connecting with a social worker or counselor. Most cancer centers have social workers or case managers on staff or can connect you with the appropriate resource. You can also look up local mental health professionals on Psychology Today’s website, she says.

Social workers can:

“Even if you don’t feel like you need counseling, it can be helpful to have someone to talk to or who can help you find the resources for whatever you need as you travel this path,” she says.

Talk to your nurse navigator

Nurse navigators like Pyle are another valuable resource.

“A nurse navigator can help you understand your diagnosis, the next steps, where to go next and what each specialist can do for you,” she says.

Meet with a dietitian

Nutrition is an essential aspect of cancer care. Ask your nurse navigator, social worker or oncologist if they can connect you with a dietitian who can help you determine what to eat to optimize your treatment and recovery.

Bring a support person to your oncology appointments

“When you’re first diagnosed, it’s going to be overwhelming,” says Pyle. “There will be a lot of information thrown at you and it’s hard to capture all the information when you’re feeling overwhelmed.”

She recommends bringing a trusted support person to your appointments, such as a family member, friend or neighbor. Ask them to take notes during your appointment so you can focus on what your oncologist tells you.

Let loved ones support you during a cancer diagnosis

“It’s really important to have people you can depend on,” she says. “So often, I hear people say they don’t want to burden their family and friends about their diagnosis, but now is the time to focus on yourself and make yourself the priority.”

She suggests asking family, friends, neighbors and colleagues for help with specific tasks, such as:

  • Cooking

  • Picking up the kids from school or practice

  • Cleaning, laundry, yard work and other household chores

  • Driving you to appointments

  • Attending appointments or infusions with you

  • Errands or grocery shopping

  • Caring for your pet(s) while you’re at appointments or recovering from treatment

Stay active during cancer treatment

“There’s evidence that people who stay physically active during cancer treatment fare much better,” says Pyle. “If you’re an active person, stay active, though you may need to modify your workouts. If you aren’t currently active, start with short, slow walks. You can even walk the length of your house a few times. Just keep moving.”

Join a support group

It can also be beneficial to join a support group.

“In a support group, you can talk with people in similar situations,” says Pyle. “You can say things to your support group that you may not feel like you can say to your family and friends. There’s no judgment in the support group.”

If you’re hesitant to open up, you’re not alone, but doing so can make all the difference.

“I’ve found in my years of facilitating support groups that people will come for the first time and I can tell they’re uncomfortable talking to a group of people they don’t know,” she says. “But just about every time the meeting ends, they’ll come up to me and say they’re so glad they came. The benefit is tremendous.”

To find a support group near you, check with your nurse navigator, social worker or nearest cancer center.

Learn more about support during the cancer journey.


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