Six Things to Do When You Learn You Have Cancer

By Nancy Borstelmann, LICSW, MPH

A cancer diagnosis can put even the most organized person into a state of disarray. That’s not surprising, because it’s normal to feel overwhelmed and out of control in the face of such stress. But there are steps you can take to ensure you’re best prepared for the road ahead. Don’t forget to:

  1. Slow down and give yourself a chance to cope. Set aside time for yourself and your loved ones. It’s easy to feel isolated when you put up a strong front, so keep the lines of communication open with your family, friends, and doctors. Try to gain strength from one another by expressing your emotions honestly and openly.
  2. Learn what services and programs are available. Many patients don’t take full advantage of support and resources simply because they haven’t had a chance to learn what’s out there. The National Cancer Institute offers advice for finding support resources in the general community. At Dana-Farber, patients and their loved ones can leaf through their patient handbook or talk with a concierge in the Shapiro Center for Patients and Families to learn about available programs (they can also call a concierge at 617-632-3750).
  3. Accept help from others. Make a list of ways that friends and family can help, and suggest specific tasks. Friends or family members who assist with the day-to-day challenges of living with cancer can review the helpful advice and tips in Dana-Farber’s downloadable caregiver booklets.
  4. Beth Overmoyer with patientLearn more about your cancer. Gather basic information about your diagnosis, to the extent that you feel comfortable. Take notes when your doctor or nurse explains something, or ask a loved one to do so. If you have questions before an appointment, write them down and ask them when you meet with your cancer care team. At Dana-Farber, you can research more about a cancer diagnosis with help from a trained volunteer or staff member in the Eleanor and Maxwell Blum Patient and Family Resource Center.
  5. Step back and think about how you are coping. Everyone reacts to a cancer diagnosis in his or her own way, so it may help to turn to strategies that have helped you manage and reduce stress in the past. Ideas to consider: Practice relaxation techniques or attend a yoga class (both available through Dana-Farber’s Zakim Center). Rely on your preferred spiritual support. Start (or continue) an exercise routine. At most cancer centers, you can let your doctor or nurse know if you are feeling particularly stressed and they can help you make an appointment with one of our social workers.
  6.  Connect with others in your situation. Talking with someone who has previously dealt with cancer can be a great help. Dana-Farber’s One-to-One program links trained volunteer cancer survivors with those who are facing it for the first time. Similarly, CancerConnect offers an online forum where patients and family members can connect with cancer patients, doctors, survivors, family members, and friends for advice, support, and guidance.