What to Expect if You Get a Cancer Diagnosis

"You have cancer."

There is no way to prepare to hear those words.

What does it mean?
How serious is it?
Am I going to die?

What do I do now?

There are many kinds of cancer, in various stages. No part of the body seems to be immune to this malevolent invasion. Treatment protocols vary. Each person is different in how they respond to a diagnosis, to the disease and to the treatments.

I can’t tell you exactly what's going to happen after you hear those words, but I can pass along these simple observations—an overview of things you might expect in the days, weeks and months ahead. Obviously due to time/space constraints, I can’t go into much detail, but it’s my prayer that you know you are not alone.

I didn’t number these because this is not a blueprint, and there is no timeline. Each person is different and we will experience this disease and the treatment in our own unique way.

Multiple Decisions. From the time cancer is suspected, through the biopsy process and the discussion of treatment options, you might feel besieged with the decisions you are asked to make. And these are not like choosing which cereal to buy; we’re talking personal, serious and often urgent choices. You could feel rushed, and overwhelmed, so pause and process what you are hearing from the doctors. They deal with this every day, but (if you're fortunate) you will only confront this once, so do what is necessary to have all the details you need to make informed decisions. Take the time you need to understand.  Get a second or even a third medical opinion if it makes you feel more comfortable.

The Need to Know. You will have many questions, and it's wise to educate yourself. You will need to become your own Health & Wellness Advocate, whether dealing with doctors or insurance companies. Ask lots of questions. Ask as many questions and as often as you need to understand. If you’re going to search the Internet for information, I always recommend the American Cancer Society website. (You will find lots of garbage sites, and some stuff you read could scare the crap out of you, but will do little to alleviate your cancer or relieve your stress!)

Others will have an opinion. Those around you will want to give you lots of guidance, usually unsolicited and almost always unfounded, uninformed or unqualified. It may be about the doctor you are seeing, the treatment you are receiving, the foods you are (or should be) eating, this miracle supplement, this wonder food, etc., In most cases, it's out of concern for you, but it may not be the best advice and it can create confusion and doubt in your mind. I regularly get information from well-meaning friends who have found “THE” cure for my cancer, and often it’s being suppressed by modern medicine, insurance companies or the government. I have an awesome medical team, and I made the choice to rely on the experts, not those who have no formal training. I always thank them for their valued friendship, but state firmly that I am working with my medical team on treatments and I trust them. ("I have a doctor, what I really need is a friend!")

Range of Emotions. Get ready for them all; they just surface, with no warning and sometimes for no apparent reason. The harsh emotions can be directed at ourselves, our doctor, God…or anyone who happens to be there at the moment. Give yourself permission to have these feelings, but find ways to cultivate the positive ones that will aid in your recovery—peace, courage, inspiration, joy, love...and hope.

Need for Support. It's not necessary...or advisable...to try to handle this alone. You will benefit greatly from a solid and available support system—family, friends, survivors, faith community and even professional counseling. It's probably best to avoid those who cannot or will not give you positive encouragement. When I was diagnosed, I went to a therapist to help me sort through my emotions. Later, my partner and I went together to work on ways to communicate our needs and feelings during my recovery. Most cities have wonderful cancer support groups, and there are online sites for survivors and those living with the same cancer you have.

Varied Responses. It’s up to you when and who (of IF) you tell others about your diagnosis, but I’ve found that I can never predict how they will respond. I’ve had people minimize it (“Stop worrying, that’s so treatable.”), dismiss it (“No you don’t, in Jesus’ name you are healed!”), freak me out ("My father died of that."), use it as a weapon against me (“God is chastising you because of your sinful lifestyle.”) or say nothing at all. You will know from how they take the news whether you can add them to your support system.

Change! I often tell folks that the “c” in "Big C" stands for change! Whether it’s simple, serious or severe, cancer is your body at war with itself. Depending on the type and extent of your cancer, your body will be impacted. Treatments like chemotherapy and radiation also leave physical after-effects. There could be reconstructive surgeries. Your body is being assaulted, and it can be devastating. And traumatic. Trying to fight the changes will only drain energy needed to fight the disease.

  • Your routine is, at least, interrupted in a way unlike taking a few days off to get over the flu.. It's not "business as usual." There are doctor appointments, lab tests, treatments, follow up visits, referrals. It requires time away from work, reduced schedules, more rest. And those disruptions often have a ripple effect on those who depend on us—at home, at work, in our outside activities.
  • Others can treat you differently; they are processing their own emotions about your disease. They may be frightened, they might cry in your presence, or they may withdraw rather than deal with what they are feeling.
  • You will see yourself differently, and not always in a good way. Am I less than a man because I cannot get an erection? Are you less of a woman because you cannot have children? Is someone less of a person if they lose an limb?  We must remind ourselves that we are not our disease; we are more than our physicality.

I wrote this in my journal the week of my second diagnosis: “Here we go…again. I’m not looking forward to the road ahead of me, but I know that strength, grace, peace and joy are available for each day and each ‘obstacle’ I encounter in this journey." 

And I reminded myself and my partner, as I did with the first diagnosis—God is big enough for this.

Don't get me wrong. Cancer Sucks!
There is still a great dread, sense of doom and even stigma attached to the idea of “cancer.” I can’t predict where your journey will go…or how it will end. But I want you to know that if you will stay present, not dwelling in the past of regret or anticipating the outcomes of an unknown future, you may learn invaluable lessons about yourself.

Do you have your own cancer story?
I welcome your input, as well as any comments, questions or insights.

Please Note: I beat cancer once, and now I’m in the fight again, but that doesn’t make me an expert on this disease; I am not a doctor nor a therapist. No one can tell another person how they will…or should…deal with cancer. My experience is just that—mine. I absolutely DO NOT offer myself as any kind of Example. I’m just an average guy, living with this damned disease.