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

About 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 Creagan, M.D., a cancer specialist at Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., 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. Recognize 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 — preferably 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, such as certain thyroid tumors, are better treated by thyroid specialists, as these doctors treat those types of cancers much more often than oncologists. 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 very 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 very likely that all other cancer specialists will tell you the same thing.

Jul. 15, 2011 See more In-depth