Cancer diagnosis? Advice for dealing with what comes next

A Mayo Clinic cancer specialist explains what to expect after your cancer diagnosis.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Almost half of all men and a third of all women in the United States will receive a cancer diagnosis at some time in their lives. A cancer diagnosis often comes with little warning.

Here, Edward T. Creagan, M.D., a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic's campus in Rochester, Minnesota, offers his advice on what to expect and how to cope after a cancer diagnosis.

What advice would you give someone who has just received a cancer diagnosis?

I would tell him or her to:

  • Know the details of the cancer diagnosis. First, find out the name of the cancer, its size and location, where it started, and if it has spread. Learn whether it's viewed as a slow-growing cancer or an aggressive one.

    Ask about the available treatment options, the success rate of each treatment and what side effects to expect from each. Without that information, you can't get an accurate understanding of the problem and know what to expect from the treatment.

  • Bring someone with you. Know that this is a time of personal crisis, and your ability to retain any meaningful information may be practically zero.

    So bring someone with you — someone who is reliable and knows how to be your advocate. Choose someone you like. It can be helpful to have someone with you to help unscramble the messages.

When should you consult a specialist in cancer diagnosis and treatment (oncologist)?

This depends on the type of cancer, its stage and the treatment options that are available.

There are many different types of cancer and not all require an oncologist. For example, some cancers, such as basal cell skin cancers, can be surgically removed and have virtually no likelihood of recurring.

Other cancers are better treated by other specialists — for example, certain thyroid tumors are better treated by thyroid specialists — as these doctors treat those types of cancers much more often than oncologists do.

For the vast majority of cancers, it's always a good idea to at least consult an oncologist to get his or her opinion. Discuss with your doctor who is the best specialist for your type of cancer.

Is it a good idea to seek a second opinion after a cancer diagnosis?

It's always reasonable to seek a second opinion from an oncologist.

You may wish to see someone at a center that specializes in cancer care. In the United States, this might be one of the National Cancer Institute-designated cancer centers around the country. Typically these centers are part of a university or large medical center.

While second opinions are reasonable, don't waste time by going to six or seven different cancer centers to see several doctors who may all tell you the same thing. If the two opinions are similar, it's likely that all other cancer specialists will tell you the same thing.

What qualities should you look for in a doctor?

Look for a doctor who:

  • Listens. It's important to find a doctor who will listen to your concerns. It will be easier for you to ask this doctor questions.
  • Explains. You want a doctor who can use plain language to explain what you have, what the treatment options are and what your prognosis is in terms you can understand.
  • Understands. You want that elusive quality of chemistry between you and your doctor — a doctor who understands you. If it isn't there, find someone else. He or she may have all of the credentials, but if the chemistry between you and that doctor isn't positive, you might do well to switch.

Make the relationship with your doctor a working partnership. The best treatment relationship is one where you ask questions and participate in your care.

What should you consider when discussing treatment options?

When discussing treatment options with your doctor, understand that:

  • Treatment is evolving. Traditionally, surgery has been the mainstay of treatment for most cancers.

    More recently, there has been a movement toward less extensive operations to treat cancer.

    For example, a generation ago, women with breast cancer were treated with radical mastectomy. Today, in many cases the breast is preserved by removing only the cancerous lump and a safety tissue margin around the cancer, and following this with radiation therapy and sometimes chemotherapy and hormone treatments. This approach can be as effective as more-extensive operations.

  • Treatment options vary. Learn about your disease and the approaches commonly used to treat it.

    Some cancers respond better to radiation; others to chemotherapy or hormonal treatments. Some require one type of therapy; others a combination.

    At times, simple observation rather than treatment is enough. Some cancers present few if any symptoms and cause few problems and little or no pain. They may even remain inactive for long periods of time. Treatment in those cases usually doesn't enhance your quality of life.

    Other cancers are aggressive and will likely cause major problems. Treatment in those cases may be warranted.

    Ask what would happen without any treatment, and compare the answer with the expected results of treatment.

  • Treatments have side effects. Understand what side effects to expect and what benefits the treatment offers. Then weigh your willingness to tolerate the side effects to reap the benefits.

    The goals of therapy can vary, and only you can decide what side effects you're willing to accept to achieve your goal.

    For example, if you're a young person with a curable disease, you may be willing to tolerate very severe, short-term side effects for a chance of eliminating your disease. But if you are 85 and have an incurable disease, you may decide not to accept bad side effects if the goal is to live only an additional month or two.

Ask your doctor what the treatment will accomplish.

For example, the doctor's statement that treatment will increase survival by 50 percent sounds great. But if 50 percent means increasing life from eight weeks to 12 weeks, and those remaining weeks are spent vomiting and battling nausea, weakness and fatigue, maybe you haven't gained much.

Don't all cancer treatments have awful side effects?

Not necessarily. Cancer treatments do have side effects, but most are predictable.

Your doctor can outline a plan to prevent many side effects and otherwise treat or lessen others.

In general, side effects are reversible, and helping you cope with them should be a focus of your doctor.

Take the potential side effects into consideration when choosing a treatment, but also know that most aren't as bad as you've heard.

Ask your doctor what you can expect:

  • How sick are you going to be?
  • How much energy are you going to have during treatment?
  • If you work 50 hours a week now, will you be able to work 50 hours a week during treatment? Will you be able to work 20 hours?

Find out the answers to these questions. Treatment is your decision.

What role can your family and friends play?

They may have the best of intentions, but family and friends may overwhelm you with their research efforts. And they can be overly enthusiastic in advocating aggressive treatment when they don't fully understand the side effects and outcomes.

But friends and family are crucial to survival. Numerous studies have correlated cancer survival with social contacts. But know your limits. It's OK to take a rest and regroup.

Set your priorities and acknowledge your limitations.

Nov. 03, 2018 See more In-depth

See also

  1. Adjuvant therapy for cancer
  2. After a flood, are food and medicines safe to use?
  3. Alternative cancer treatments: 10 options to consider
  4. Atypical cells: Are they cancer?
  5. Biological therapy for cancer
  6. Biopsy procedures
  7. Blood Basics
  8. Bone marrow transplant
  9. Bone scan
  10. Cancer
  11. Cancer blood tests
  12. Myths about cancer causes
  13. Infographic: Cancer Clinical Trials Offer Many Benefits
  14. Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping
  15. Cancer-related fatigue
  16. Cancer pain: Relief is possible
  17. Cancer-prevention strategies
  18. Cancer risk: What the numbers mean
  19. Cancer surgery
  20. Cancer survival rate
  21. Cancer survivors: Care for your body after treatment
  22. Cancer survivors: Late effects of cancer treatment
  23. Cancer survivors: Managing your emotions after cancer treatment
  24. Cancer survivors: Reconnecting with loved ones after treatment
  25. Cancer treatment decisions: 5 steps to help you decide
  26. Cancer treatment for men: Possible sexual side effects
  27. Cancer treatment for women: Possible sexual side effects
  28. Cancer treatment myths
  29. Cancer Vaccine Research
  30. Cellphones and cancer
  31. Chemo Targets
  32. Chemoembolization
  33. Chemotherapy
  34. Chemotherapy and hair loss: What to expect during treatment
  35. Chemotherapy and sex: Is sexual activity OK during treatment?
  36. Chemotherapy nausea and vomiting: Prevention is best defense
  37. Chemotherapy side effects: A cause of heart disease?
  38. Complete blood count (CBC)
  39. Cough
  40. CT scan
  41. CT scans: Are they safe?
  42. Curcumin: Can it slow cancer growth?
  43. Cancer-related diarrhea
  44. Eating during cancer treatment: Tips to make food tastier
  45. Fatigue
  46. Fertility preservation
  47. Get ready for possible side effects of chemotherapy
  48. Ginger for nausea: Does it work?
  49. High-dose vitamin C: Can it kill cancer cells?
  50. How plant-based food helps fight cancer
  51. Intrathecal chemotherapy
  52. Joint pain
  53. Joint pain: Rheumatoid arthritis or parvovirus?
  54. Low blood counts
  55. Magic mouthwash
  56. Medical marijuana
  57. Mediterranean diet recipes
  58. Mindfulness exercises
  59. Monoclonal antibody drugs
  60. Mort Crim and Cancer
  61. Mouth sores caused by cancer treatment: How to cope
  62. MRI
  63. Muscle pain
  64. Night sweats
  65. No appetite? How to get nutrition during cancer treatment
  66. Palliative care
  67. Palliative care
  68. PALS (Pets Are Loving Support)
  69. Pelvic exenteration
  70. PET/MRI scan
  71. Pet therapy
  72. Radiation therapy
  73. Infographic: Scalp Cooling Therapy for Cancer
  74. Secondhand smoke
  75. Seeing Inside the Heart with MRI
  76. Self-Image During Cancer
  77. Sentinel lymph node mapping
  78. Sisters' Bone Marrow Transplant
  79. Sleep tips
  80. Mediterranean diet
  81. Radiation simulation
  82. Small cell, large cell cancer: What this means
  83. Stem Cells 101
  84. Stem cells: What they are and what they do
  85. Thalidomide: Research advances in cancer and other conditions
  86. Treating pain: When is an opioid the right choice?
  87. Tumor vs. cyst: What's the difference?
  88. Ultrasound
  89. Unexplained weight loss
  90. Stem cell transplant
  91. How cancer spreads
  92. MRI
  93. PICC line placement
  94. Compassionate use
  95. When cancer returns: How to cope with cancer recurrence
  96. X-ray
  97. Your secret weapon during cancer treatment? Exercise!