What to Do When the Doctor Says Cancer

Posted May 8, 2015

When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, she is immediately faced with a multitude of different choices for her treatment.

“Not only does she have to make several decisions about a very complex disease, but she’ll also have to do so in a relatively short period of time,” explains Karen K. Fields, MD, Medical Director of the Moffitt Oncology Network.

When a patient is first diagnosed with cancer, there’s a two-fold process that occurs. First, a patient is tasked with finding and selecting therapy. Her next challenge is then dealing with the lifestyle changes that come with that therapy. “Once a patient sets off on a path for treatment, some of the treatments are very challenging,” says Dr. Fields.

But being that many people are simply in shock after receiving such news, it begs the question: after being diagnosed with cancer, what are the first steps we should be taking?

1. Get a second opinion.

When a person is diagnosed, they should first seek a physician and care team that they can fully trust. The right support team will vary from person to person, but generally, find a team of people who can provide a quality diagnosis and a team of people with which you can be honest and open with.

Next, find an overall environment where you can be cared for in; again, this varies from person to person. This process may take time, and the selection process can also be limited by where someone lives, but it’s the first step in getting organized and feeling more confident about treatment.

“If possible, get a second opinion,” encourages Dr. Fields. This can help a person better recognize varying physician philosophies, and also can help you truly understand all the options that are available. In some cases, the diagnosis may even change with a second opinion, explains Dr. Fields.

At this stage, seek to answer questions from your chosen provider, such as:

  • What is my diagnosis?
  • What are the possible treatments for this kind of cancer, based on my diagnosis?
  • What are the advantages and disadvantages I should know about?
  • What is my recommended next step?
  • When can I ask more questions?
  • When should I see you again?

2. Don’t be a passive bystander.

Being a proactive, educated and informed patient doesn’t end after getting a second opinion.

Take the approach that you are now your biggest health advocate.

Physicians and care teams recognize that the best way to receive and digest information is different for each person, so don’t be afraid to have conversations with all of your care team members. Dr. Fields says her team encourages people to seek out quality sources of information. She also recognizes how sometimes a patient can be overwhelmed and forget to ask certain questions when it’s time for a physician visit. “Write down those questions you have and bring them in to the doctor,” recommends Dr. Fields.

Asking questions in this way is part of a “full disclosure” mentality that patients should have with the care team. “We like patients to think about bringing a support person or two, and they can help with asking those questions.” After all, providers can’t help a patient if they do not know important facts relative to your lifestyle or treatment, or if they are unaware of your questions or concerns to begin with.

3. Seek to understand your medication regimen as much as possible & don’t be deterred by barriers to treatment along the way.

Part of being able to adhere to treatment goes beyond just speaking up with your care team or physician. The next challenge many people face when starting treatment can be factors related to getting actual access to treatment.

Take for example oral medications. Some may be very expensive, meaning some people have to work through the challenge with finances in order to get those medications. Second, sometimes not every pharmacy will have the specific drug that you may need. In some cases, a specialty pharmacy or another strategy has to be implemented to even receive the medication. “Add to this other kinds of family or family member obligations that do not go away, so there are the challenges of balancing that as well.”

Dr. Fields says don’t be deterred, however. This example just goes to show how important your care team relationships will be in managing barriers to treatment, stress, and to your overall treatment. Whether it is the emotions, the side effects, or the rigorous schedule and adherence to therapy that’s required, having a safe place with your provider will go a long way.