September 25, 2020 CURE magazine
Remember, knowledge is power. The more information you have about your cancer, the less power it has over you.
A cancer diagnosis can cause a person to feel a wide range of emotions like fear, anger, shock, dread, grief, or loss. Often those emotions come suddenly like a crazy whirlwind and other times, they sneak up quietly, one by one. No matter how they come, all of them are normal. I remember sitting in the doctor’s office after my diagnosis hearing her speak but being unable to process her words. They came in cartoonish fashion and sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher, from Charles Shultz classic comic series, “Peanuts.” All I could hear was, “Waa wa wa waa, wa waaa wa waa.” Nothing made sense. The words, “You have breast cancer,” can feel like being handed an instant death sentence, but though it feels that way, it isn’t necessarily a fact. Breast cancer is a highly treatable disease. When I was diagnosed with breast cancer six years ago, I learned a lot. And, I’d like to share some of the most practical information in hopes of helping others.
Breast cancer isn’t usually a medical emergency. That means there’s usually plenty of time to process information and emotions. Give yourself space and grace. There’s no reason to rush into making decisions. You have time to think.
It’s a good idea to enlist the help of a trusted family member or friend. You’ll be receiving a lot of medical information and it’s a good idea to have someone accompany you to appointments. The person who joins you can jot down notes and vital information. This will allow you to be present in the moment without worrying about details.
You’re not alone. While it may feel like you’ve been thrust into a battle you weren’t expecting to fight, you won’t be the only soldier on the field. Your medical team will want you to be well informed. Their goal is for a good outcome.
At some point in the early stages of your care, you’ll be assigned a nurse navigator. The nurse navigator can help provide answers to questions you may feel uncomfortable posing to your doctor. The nurse navigator will also help keep you stay on top of upcoming appointments. This person will become your advocate. Learn to trust and rely on them. No question or concern is too insignificant. They’ve heard it all before, so ask away.
You’ll also have a tumor board. A tumor board is a group of doctors who collaborate on your individual case. They work together to coordinate your treatment and care. It may feel odd knowing you’re being discussed on a regular basis, but by working together, they can ensure you receive the very best care.
It’s OK to cry. Cancer is a scary word, and everything associated with cancer carries a feeling of uncertainty. Give yourself permission to cry and don’t be afraid to let others see your emotions.
Hit something! Get angry if you must. Anger is a powerful emotion and one many try to control, but in situations like receiving devastating health news, it’s acceptable to express frustration and anger. Anger won’t solve any problems but sometimes, those feelings can allow a person to process information and move forward.
Tell others about your diagnosis when you’re ready. A cancer diagnosis is personal. The diagnosis will undoubtedly cause you to feel emotional pain and shock. It will more than likely have the same effect on your loved ones. Adjusting to the news takes time. Communicate the information to others when you’re strong enough and do it on your terms.
Find your people and build your tribe. You may or may not have an emotional support team in immediate family members. Sometimes it’s necessary to reach outside your family unit and rely on a trusted friend(s). Look for those who are attentive and optimistic. Positivity will be beneficial to your recovery.
You may find new friends through a breast cancer Facebook group or other online support groups. Community will be a vital part of your healing process.
Communication is key. Talking about cancer during the initial phase of diagnosis will be challenging, but necessary. You’ll need a confidant to share thoughts, feelings, and fears with, but you’ll also need someone who is non-judgmental and understanding. You have the power to choose when and if you want to share information. Some people find it helpful to set up a website for sharing information with multiple people easily. Caring Bridge is a free website many have found helpful. Don’t feel pressured to share publicly, but if you choose to do so, do it your way.
Don’t believe everything you read or hear. It’s easy to fall prey to information overload. Be careful! One of the first traps many newly diagnosed patients experience is a need to know. As soon as you find yourself near that slippery slope, pull back! There’s so much information on the internet, in books, and from survivors it’s easy to be overcome with details. Most doctors’ offices or treatment centers provide helpful, documented information to aid in guiding you through treatment options. If they don’t offer reading material, ask for it. Or check reputable websites.
There are also several very good books with helpful information: Breast Cancer for Dummies, The Breast Cancer Survival Manual and Dr. Susan Love’s Breast Book.
Remember, knowledge is power. The more information you have about your disease, the less power it has over you.
When in doubt, speak out! If information is unclear, ask questions. The doctor and medical team work for you. You have a right to clear, concise answers.
Remember, you’re only human. From the day of diagnosis forward, you’ll be required to make decision after decision. Some of them will be small and others large. Some will be required immediately, and others will not. All these decisions can bring about feelings of stress. An unknown future can be frightening, but there are more people surviving breast cancer today than in the past.
The best piece of advice I can offer is to cling to hope. That’s what’s helped me the most along with choosing to live one day at a time. “Sometimes even to live is an act of courage.” ― Lucius Annaeus Seneca