Cancer diagnosis: 11 tips for coping

If you've been diagnosed with cancer, knowing what to expect and making plans for how to proceed can help make this stressful time easier.

By Mayo Clinic Staff

Learning that you have cancer can be hard. Some people say they felt anxious, afraid or overwhelmed when they were first diagnosed. If you aren't sure what to do to cope, here are 11 ideas to help you deal with a cancer diagnosis.

Get the facts about your cancer diagnosis

Try to get as much basic, useful information as you can. This will help you to make decisions about your care.

Write down your questions and concerns. Bring them with you when you see your health care provider.

You may ask:

  • What kind of cancer do I have?
  • Where is the cancer?
  • Has it spread?
  • Can my cancer be treated?
  • What is the chance that my cancer can be cured?
  • What other tests or procedures do I need?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • How will the treatment benefit me?
  • What can I expect during treatment?
  • What are the side effects of the treatment?
  • When should I call my health care provider?
  • What can I do to prevent my cancer from coming back?
  • How likely are my children or other family members to get cancer?
  • What happens if I don't get treatment?

Consider bringing a family member or friend with you to your first few appointments. They can help you remember what you hear.

Think about how much you want to know about your cancer. Some people want all the facts and details. This helps them be part of the decision-making process. Others want to learn the basics and leave details and decisions to their health care providers. Think about which works best for you. Let your health care team know what you'd like.

Keep the lines of communication open

Have honest, two-way communication with your loved ones, health care providers and others. You may feel alone if people try to protect you from bad news by not talking about it. Or you might feel alone or less supported if you try to look strong and not share your feelings. If you and others show your real emotions, you can help support each other.

Anticipate possible physical changes

The best time to plan for changes to your body is right after your cancer diagnosis and before you begin treatment. Prepare yourself now so that you'll be able to deal with everything later.

Ask your health care provider what may change. Medicines may make you lose your hair. Advice from experts about clothing, makeup, wigs and hairpieces may help you feel more comfortable and attractive. Insurance often helps pay for wigs and other devices to help you adapt.

Consider joining a cancer support group. Members can provide tips that have helped them and others.

Also think about how treatment will affect your daily life. Ask your provider whether you will be able to continue your usual routine. You may need to spend time in the hospital or have many medical appointments. If your treatment will make it hard to perform your daily duties, make arrangements for this.

Plan ahead for your finances. Figure out who will do routine household chores. If you have pets, ask someone to take care of them.

Maintain a healthy lifestyle

A healthy lifestyle can improve your energy level. Choose a healthy diet. Get enough rest. These tips will help you manage the stress and fatigue of the cancer and its treatment.

If you can, have a consistent daily routine. Make time each day for exercising, getting enough sleep and eating meals.

Exercise and participating in activities that you enjoy also may help. People who get exercise during treatment not only deal better with side effects but also may live longer.

Let friends and family help you

Your friends and family can run errands, take you to appointments, prepare meals and help you with household chores. This can give those who care about you a way to help during a difficult time.

Also urge your family to accept help if it's needed. A cancer diagnosis affects the entire family. It also adds stress, especially to the ones who take care of you. Accepting help with meals or chores from neighbors or friends can help your loved ones from feeling burned out.

Review your goals and priorities

Figure out what's really important in your life. Find time for the activities that are most important to you and give you the most meaning. Check your calendar and cancel activities that don't meet your goals.

Try to be open with your loved ones. Share your thoughts and feelings with them. Cancer affects all of your relationships. Communication can help lower the anxiety and fear that cancer can cause.

Try to maintain your lifestyle

Keep your lifestyle, but be open to changing it. Take one day at a time. It's easy to forget to do this during stressful times. When the future is not sure, organizing and planning may suddenly seem like too much work.

Consider how your diagnosis will impact your finances

Many unexpected financial issues can happen after a cancer diagnosis. Your treatment may require time away from work or home. Consider the costs of medicines, medical devices, traveling for treatment and parking fees at the hospital.

Many clinics and hospitals keep lists of resources to help you financially during and after your cancer treatment. Talk with your health care team about your options.

Questions to ask include:

  • Will I have to take time away from work? If I do, what will happen with my benefits?
  • Will my friends and family need to take time away from work to be with me?
  • Will my insurance pay for these treatments?
  • Will my insurance cover the cost of medicines?
  • How much will I have to pay?
  • If insurance won't pay for my treatment, are there programs that can help?
  • Do I qualify for disability benefits?
  • How does my diagnosis affect my life insurance?
  • Who do I call to talk about what my insurance will cover?

Talk to other people with cancer

It can be hard for people who have not had cancer to understand how you're feeling. It may help to talk to people who have been in your situation. Other cancer survivors can share their experiences. They can tell you what to expect during treatment.

Talk to a friend or family member who has had cancer. Or connect with other cancer survivors through support groups. Ask your health care provider about support groups in your area. You can contact your local chapter of the American Cancer Society. Online message boards also bring cancer survivors together. Start with the American Cancer Society's Cancer Survivors Network.

Reach out to friends or neighbors who have had a serious illness. Ask them how they dealt with these complex issues.

Fight stigmas

Some old stigmas about cancer still exist. Your friends may wonder if your cancer is contagious. Co-workers may doubt you're healthy enough to do your job. Some may avoid you because they're afraid to say the wrong thing. Many people will have questions and concerns.

Determine how you'll deal with others. In general, others will follow what you do. Remind friends that cancer shouldn't make them afraid to be around you.

Develop your own ways to deal with cancer

Just as each person's cancer treatment is different, so are the ways of dealing with cancer. Ideas to try:

  • Practice ways to relax.
  • Share your feelings honestly with family, friends, a spiritual adviser or a counselor.
  • Keep a journal to help organize your thoughts.
  • When faced with a difficult decision, list the pros and cons for each choice.
  • Find a source of spiritual support.
  • Set aside time to be alone.
  • Remain involved with work and leisure activities as much as you can.
  • Be ready to say no. This is the time to focus on you.

What helped you through rough times before your cancer diagnosis can help ease your worries now. This may include a close friend, religious leader or a favorite activity. Turn to these comforts now. Also be open to trying new ways to deal with your cancer.

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Sept. 13, 2022 See more In-depth

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