A few weeks ago, one of my blog’s readers, a three-time cancer survivor, emailed me with a suggestion for a post topic: An open letter to the newly diagnosed, offering insights and support based on my own experience. I found the idea intriguing, so here goes…
Dear Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient,
“You have cancer.” Three little words that will change the lives of you and your family forever. It’s terrifying. It’s bewildering. It’s overwhelming. It sucks.
Cry a little. Cry a lot. But strive to get through the initial shock and emotional reaction as quickly as you can. You’ve got work to do.
Don’t bother trying to answer the question, “Why?” You’ll spend too much energy to never get the answer. You’ll need to focus that energy on what’s ahead.
Don’t be ashamed that you have cancer. Have open and honest conversations about it with those around you; don’t bottle it up. Find a tidbit of humor in the situation and inject it into the conversation. When you do, people will feel more comfortable around you. Recognize, however, that some people will find being around cancer too difficult and will withdraw. Let them go, for their sake and yours. Most will return once they’ve had time to process what’s happening.
Relationships will be put to the test and may change. Remember that this isn’t all about you. It’s about those closest to you, too, and sometimes it can be more than they can bear. You’ll have to be the strong one for them. Don’t be surprised when some of your most casual acquaintances become your biggest supporters. Embrace them.
Become your own advocate. Research, research, and research some more. You may have the best medical team in the world, but question them. While they’re highly trained medical professionals, they’re still human. They may have their own self-interests in mind. If you ask a radiation oncologist what the best treatment option will be, he or she will likely say radiation. If you ask a surgeon, the answer will likely be surgery. You have to be comfortable with what’s right for you, knowing all the potential risks, side effects, and complications.
Seek out other patients who have had your cancer, whether a friend, a family member, or in a support group (or even through a blog). They can be the greatest resource available to you. They can tell you their first-hand experience and how the cancer and the treatment impacts their daily life. Recognize that each case is unique, so take their input with a grain of salt and realize you may not have the same result.
You can research and consult with your medical team until the cows come home, but at some point you’re going to have to make a decision. You. It’s your body and your life. You have to be comfortable that your research was thorough, and that you’ll make the best decision possible with the information at hand at that point in time. Then place your trust in your medical team to do the best they can.
You will be stressed. You’ll have “cancer” on the mind 24/7. Figure out ways to distract yourself from the cancer thoughts even for a few hours. Go to a movie, take a drive through the country, take a hike—whatever works for you. The stress can wear you down physically. Get plenty of rest after those sleepless nights; watch your nutrition. You’ve got to be as healthy as you can going into the challenges ahead.
All of this is far easier said than done. I know. Friends and family will offer assistance; take them up on their offers. They’re not there to pity you; they’re there to offer genuine help and support. Don’t let pride get in the way.
While we all hope for the best possible outcome, the harsh reality is that not everyone survives cancer. Make sure your affairs are in order, especially advanced medical directives, and that your family understands and will honor your desires.
Being told you have cancer is not the end; it’s the beginning of a process.
In my case, I was diagnosed with Stage IIb prostate cancer, and the diagnosis was the beginning of my process to determine what treatment option was best for me. But even if you’re diagnosed with late Stage IV cancer and are considered to be terminal, it’s still the beginning of the process to figure out the best options for your remaining time.
Lastly, even if your cancer allows for successful treatment, cancer will always be in your thoughts long after the treatment ends. I’m five years out from my diagnosis and treatment, and a little “recurrence cloud” follows me around every day, as I wonder whether or not the cancer will return. Once you introduce cancer into your vocabulary, it’s there for good, whether the actual disease is there or not.
I wish you and your family all the best as you begin your own journey.