I've got a cancer diagnosis, what now?

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Answered by: Suzan, An Expert in the Cancer 101 Category
"You've got cancer" is a phrase that hits with an impact like no other. It takes your breath away and leaves you with so many more questions than answers. Likely the first question after a cancer diagnosis will be "how did I get it?"


Cancer cells are nearly inevitable. Cancer is caused by a "misprint" of the DNA in our cells. A number of conditions can cause the cells to misprint. The elements that make cancer more likely are called carcinogens and can range from sunshine to barbeque.

Everyone has cells in their body that turn into cancer cells. Mostly these dangerous cells are wiped out by the immune system. Sometimes the immune system becomes overwhelmed or fails to identify the cells as detrimental. While there are often people who would like to point to single incidents or substances in your life that caused the cancer, in fact very healthy people who have done nothing “wrong” get cancer all the time. Further, the exact cause may never be known, so try not to go down this rabbit hole. Just resolve to live a healthy life henceforth. That means eat light, exercise right, sleep tight and avoid obvious exposures to toxic chemicals. It’s all any of us can do. Forgive yourself for past transgressions in health, beating yourself up now will only detract from the energy you need to fight the battle ahead.


The next big question is “how will it be treated?” The most common cancer treatment is a combination of surgery, to remove the mass, and chemotherapy, in whatever order and for however long the medical establishment has printed in their protocols. Beyond the basics are radiation treatments and targeted chemotherapy (putting it inside the body) and going as far a immuno-transfers and other treatments. Success rates depend on the stage of the cancer and the effectiveness of the treatments for your particular cancer.


Most people who get a cancer diagnosis want to get more information. The American Cancer Society has an information hot-line that can be called to access specific information about your type of cancer. They are a wonderful resource.

Living with cancer, for the most part, is just living, except with a little more thought and purpose. This is the best time to start taking care of yourself. Start by achieving that healthy lifestyle. Exercise and rest as much as you can. Eat a moderate, well-rounded diet. If your cancer seems serious, it will help you to “get your house in order.” That can mean mending some relationships, ordering your financial affairs, and, literally, tending to the many things you have neglected.

This is not the time to start a major exercise routine or go on an extreme diet. It’s not the time to make major changes, such as changing jobs or houses, unless the change is guaranteed to reduce the stress in your life. It may be a good time to pursue interests you always planned to. Learn to speak French or play the piano. There really is no time like the present and learning something new can help create a sense of the future which will help keep your spirits bright.


Cancer victims worry about how having cancer will affect their friends and family. There are a variety of reactions people might have to the announcement. Those closest might feel a deep fear that they will lose you. The best way to deal with that emotion is to make them your partner in the fight against cancer. People who are active feel less like victims. Friends may feel, subconsciously, that the cancer is “contagious,” (it is absolutely not). They may be overwhelmed by the problem and pull back. Try to forgive them. Those that have had some brush with cancer and those who are true friends will stick around.

Spend quality time with friends and relatives. Answer any questions they have honestly and be honest about the way you feel, but do not overwhelm them with the details of your treatment or the depths of your fears unless you are sure they can take it. Try to accept whatever level of relationship they want, they may move closer or further away, but it’s all part of the journey.


Now comes the ugly question of “how can I afford it?” Hopefully, you have a sound insurance policy. If not, you may qualify for Medicaid if your treatment includes debilitating chemotherapy. There are a variety of small grants available for cancer sufferers. Ask the social worker at your hospital to point the way. The hospital should also know about local volunteer programs that can help with things like childcare and transportation.

Good medical care is critical as are optimism and determination to survive. Start asking around, most people by mid-life have been touched by cancer either directly or through a loved one. There is a lot of emotional support around. And long-term survival rates for cancer go up every year.

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