Newly Diagnosed Cancer is a scary word. And with the emotions and fears it invokes, it may initially be hard for you to take in any of the information you need, or even feel like anyone else really understands what you are going through. So be patient—with yourself and with others. Try to remember: Most women don’t die of breast cancer and most do not have to lose their breast.
The first emotion many women feel after learning they have breast cancer is shock: How could this be happening to me? The next feeling is often anger: How could my body have betrayed me? Along with this often comes the feeling: Just take the damned breast off! While this is a perfectly understandable response, it’s not one you should act on. Getting your breast cut off will not make things go back to normal; your life has been changed, and it will never be the same again. You need time to let this sink in, and to make a rational, informed decision about what treatment will be best for you. Whatever treatment you decide on, you’ll have to live with it for the rest of your life—and giving yourself a week or two to think it over won’t shorten that life.
What Every Newly Diagnosed Woman Should Know
1. Don’t go to the doctor alone.
Bring someone with you when you go the doctor to learn about your options—a spouse or partner, a parent, a close friend. Ask them to take notes or tape-record what the doctor is saying. Have them ask the questions you are afraid to ask.
2. Seek out information.
The Internet is wonderful for searching for information, but you need to be a savvy surfer. Here are a few guidelines
- Know who is sponsoring the site and whether they have anything to gain from the
- Know the credential of the person answering questions or giving medical advice.
- Check to see that the information is current.
- Look to see if the information is backed up by references in scientific journals.
- If information that you get on a site disagrees with what your doctor has said,
print out the page and bring it in to discuss with the doctor.
3. Know what you want from your doctor.
Today there’s much more emphasis on a doctor and patient sharing the decision-making process, and there are more options to choose from. Some women still want an “omniscient” doctor to tell them what to do. Others prefer physicians who will discuss everything with them. And still others want a great deal of information but prefer to defer to the doctor for decision making. There is no right or wrong style, so don’t feel guilty if your needs are not the same as those of your friend or neighbor. Remember, it’s about what style works best for you.
Here are some questions to ask yourself about your doctor and medical team:
- Do they listen?
- Do they sit down, look you in the eye, and connect with you?
- Do they solicit and answer your questions?
- Do they show you X-rays and test reports and explain them if you ask?
- Do they allow you to tape the visit?
- Do they ask you whether you use alternative or complementary therapies?
- Do they suggest additional sources of education and support?
- Are they interested in new information you bring in?
- Do you feel like they are partners in this journey?
- Do they discuss clinical trials?
The answer to each of these questions should be “yes.” If it’s not, you should take the time to assess whether you feel you have the right doctor for you or if you should seek care from someone else. Cancer isn’t easy. The last thing you need is a doctor who is going to make it even harder.
4. Consider getting a second opinion.
Exploring all of your options often means getting a second opinion. But because the treatment of breast cancer is far from straightforward, getting a second opinion does not always mean you get two opinions that are the same. When the second opinion is different from the first, a patient often assumes that this new opinion must be the right one. But that’s not necessarily the case. The truth is that there are choices, and there often is no one “right” answer. Instead, you have to explore all of the possibilities until you find the one most comfortable for you.
Sometimes patients are shy about seeking a second opinion—as though they’re somehow insulting their doctor’s professionalism. Never feel that way. Most doctors won’t be offended—and if you run into a doctor who does get miffed, don’t be intimidated. You are more important than your doctor’s ego.
5. Reflect seriously on what it means to you to lose a breast.
Although many women will say, “I don’t care about my breast,” deep down this is probably not true for most of us. For many women, the loss of a breast creates feelings of inadequacy—the sense of no longer being “a real woman.” Whether you have a mastectomy should be based not only on the best medical information you can gather but also on what feels right to you. It’s also important to remember that if you are choosing between a mastectomy and a lumpectomy followed by radiation, you can’t make a “wrong” choice. Studies have found that both forms of treatment are equally effective.
6. Find support.
It’s important to have a lot of support around you while you go through cancer treatment. And it’s important to allow yourself to feel lousy. Cancer is a life-threatening illness, and the treatments are all emotionally and physically stressful; you need to accept that and pamper yourself a bit. You don’t have to be Superwoman. Get help from your friends and family throughout the treatment. You may also want to consider joining a breast cancer support group. Some women feel most supported and helped in a group where there are women with all stages of breast cancer; others are too upset by the stories of women with metastatic disease and would not do well in a mixed-stage group. If there is no group in your area, or you don’t want to meet in person, you might want to consider joining an online support group or bulletin board.
7. Learn how to talk to your children about cancer.
What do I tell my children? In general, it’s wiser to be honest with your kids, and to use the scary word cancer. If they don’t hear it from you now, they’re bound to find it out some other way—they’ll overhear a conversation when you assume they’re out of the room, or a friend or neighbor will inadvertently say something. And when they hear it that way, it will be a lot more horrifying for them. Children need to know they can trust you, and you don’t want to do anything to violate that trust. Also, remember to listen to their fears. If you find it difficult to bring up the subject, there are children’s books that can give you a place to begin. You can learn more from Cancer Care’s “Helping Children Understand Cancer” or call the Cancer Information Service at 1-800-4-CANCER and ask for a free copy of “Taking Time: Support for People with Cancer and the People Who Care About Them.”
8. Watch out for the “post-treatment blues.”
The routine established during your treatment will help you feel supported, protected, and active against your cancer. Losing that feeling is hard. It’s a little like leaving a job—even one you didn’t like. Rationally, you’re glad it’s over, but emotionally you feel lost. Compounding the situation is a reasonable fear: If my treatment’s over, then couldn’t the cancer be starting up again? It’s a scary time. This anxiety may well progress into depression, which is very common and can sneak up on you when you’re least expecting it. You may find yourself feeling sad and anxious, unable to sleep or sleeping too much, or having lost interest in activities you usually enjoy. These symptoms are very normal. Often they last only a few weeks or months; but if they seem to drag on, you may want to see a counselor or therapist to help you get unstuck and go on with your life.
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