Facing Cancer: Make a Plan

You may just be absorbing the news that you have cancer and are wondering what to do first. Whom do you contact? Is there anyone to guide you? Though you may not realize it, you are already surrounded by a large circle of support. Your doctor, nurse navigator, health care team members, caregivers, family, friends and others are all valuable resources who are dedicated to helping you from this point on.

Getting started may be easier than you realize. Simple conversations can help begin the relationships that will become very important, and having them soon after diagnosis will help you feel more informed and prepared to move forward with confidence.

The First Conversations

Some conversations are important to have early. Remember that your health care team members are there to guide you.

  1. You will likely talk with your doctor and maybe a nurse navigator first about your diagnosis. Ask about your type of cancer, its stage and where to find more information. Ask for specific details about it, such as if it is a slow-growing or fast-growing cancer. Find out if you will have genetic or genomic testing to look for mutations that may be treated with specific drug therapies. Ask if you are a candidate for a clinical trial. Learn who is on your health care team and their roles.
  2. Another discussion with your doctor should address the goals of treatment, the treatment options that are available for you and symptom management. Share your expectations for the quality of life you want while receiving treatment. Ask about what to expect with each type of treatment along with its benefits and possible side effects. You will rely on your doctor to guide you but, ultimately, you will decide on the treatment you feel most comfortable with. If you are unsure, this may be the time to seek a second opinion. This doesn’t mean you doubt your doctor. Other specialists may have different opinions and levels of expertise, and you deserve to gather as much information as you can about your diagnosis and treatment options. Most doctors welcome the fact that you’re committed to finding the best care possible and may make a referral for the second opinion. Some health insurance companies even require one.
  3. Ask how the symptoms of cancer and the side effects of treatment will be managed. You may hear the terms “palliative care” and “supportive care.” Palliative care services are often confused with hospice care, but they are different. Hospice care is reserved for end-of-life care. Palliative or supportive care can benefit anyone with a serious or life-threatening illness and helps you manage the physical and emotional distress that stems from having cancer. It is available at any time, even immediately after diagnosis. These services may be offered at the hospital, cancer center or medical clinic and may be covered by your insurance plan, Medicare or Medicaid.
  4. Contact your pharmacist and talk about the medications you will be taking, including what they are, how to use them and if they interact with anything you already take. Pharmacists have special training in preparing and dispensing prescription drugs. They are a valuable resource and can help you with medication adherence, which is taking the right drug, at the right time, at the right dose — a critical part of treatment.
  5. Talk with your caregiver. This person may be your spouse, a partner, a family member or a friend. You may choose more than one person depending on the amount of care you will need. Share your expectations of how you’d like them to assist you during treatment. Talk about what you think you will need, how other people can help and what you’d like to continue doing on your own. And, remember that it’s okay to change your mind during treatment. Depending on how you’re feeling, you may want a different type of assistance than you initially thought. Don’t be afraid to share your needs.

Finding Additional Support

While your health care team assists you with treatment and side effect management, you can explore other services available to help manage the emotional, financial, spiritual and mental effects of cancer. You will not have to face these challenges alone. Specialists on your team, such as social workers, case managers and financial counselors, are trained to help you in these areas. If you are unsure of where to begin, ask your care team for a referral.

Draw upon the support of your family and friends, but keep in mind they may only be able to understand so much. Consider joining an in-person or online (virtual) cancer support group. Talking with people who have walked in your shoes can offer unique comfort and support. If you are facing difficult emotions, talking with a licensed counselor may also help.

Meet Your Healthcare Team

The specialists on your team may vary depending on the type of cancer you have and the facility at which you receive treatment. Your team may consist of any of these specialists:

  • Medical oncologists
  • Surgical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists and radiologists
  • Pathologists
  • Oncology nurses
  • Advanced practice providers (oncology nurse practitioners and physician assistants)
  • Nurse navigators and patient navigators
  • Case managers, social workers and patient advocates
  • Pharmacists
  • Financial counselors

Prevention + Follow-Up Strategies

During this time, it’s important that you and your loved ones not neglect your general health. Talk with your doctor about the best way to obtain necessary screenings and appointments.