“You have breast cancer.” These are words that every woman never wants to hear—yet, at some point in your life, you may. And whether the diagnosis is for you or someone you love, those words will change your life forever. Amid the shock and waves of grief, anger, and sadness, there will be decisions to make, appointments to book, and lives to rearrange. It’s an intimidating prospect, but—despite your fear and exhaustion—you won’t have the luxury of hiding under the covers and hoping it all goes away.
Admit that you and your family are in crisis. When you hear the word “crisis,” it typically conjures images of natural disasters—not something that is the result of a day at the doctor’s office. A crisis is a turning point in your life. A diagnosis of cancer is just that.
Remember that knowledge is power. When you are faced with a possibly terminal illness, there are so many things that are simply unknown to the patient and her caregivers. The best remedy for feeling “armed and ready” during your fight with cancer is to equip yourself with information—a lot of it. Aldrich says that most patients and their families tend to defer to their doctors without realizing that they actually have a say in all decisions. Insist from the beginning that your medical team be direct and forthcoming with all information. Pay close attention at doctor’s appointments, ask for multiple recommendations, and stay grounded. You need to clearly understand your options, the side effects, and future concerns.
Make use of the gifts of those around you. Chances are the people in your own inner circle, your family, friends, neighbors, and coworkers, all possess individual talents and resources that can help you face your fight. For example, perhaps you have a relative with experience in the medical field who can help you navigate the hospital system. People want to help, so don’t be afraid to ask.
Don’t stop with the first opinion. It’s important to remember that nobody—not even your doctor—can know what will happen—good or bad. Doctors are human, not superhuman, and they can send you down the wrong path. One of the biggest mistakes people make after a diagnosis is failing to get a second, third, or even fourth opinion on their diagnosis and treatment options. Even if you have to travel out of state, or across the country, it’s worth the effort if it means getting the best possible care.
No one knows a patient’s “expiration date.” Cancer is very serious, and you don’t want to live in denial. Yet, you also don’t need to assume the worst. If your doctor says the typical patient with your type and stage of breast cancer lives six months, that doesn’t mean YOU have only six months. The doctor doesn’t know for sure. Assuming he or she does just sets you up psychologically to live until that date and no longer—and since outlook is such a critical part of the battle, that could have dire consequences.
Commit to facing the cancer battle together. A cancer diagnosis is challenging in many ways. It can tax you mentally and physically—and it can put a real strain on your personal relationships. You have to go into it knowing that neither you nor your partner will survive this trial without the other one.
Remember, the patient has the final say. When you’re the patient, you’ll want to do everything in your power to fight your cancer and become a survivor. But there may come a time when it’s all too much, or when you don’t feel comfortable with a decision or treatment plan—and it’s okay for you to say no or ask for another opinion. Personal choice is critical in the fight against cancer, and keeping in mind that you have a choice can be both empowering and comforting.
Realize that life does go on (if you let it). A cancer diagnosis changes the way you live—your capabilities, your schedule, and your ability to make future plans. This loss of freedom and control is one of the most difficult aspects of the disease for cancer patients to cope with. That’s why it’s critical to live your life as normally as possible. Get up every day, go to work if you are able, and stay active and involved with your friends and family. Finding the right balance will keep your spirits high and your attitude positive.