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What You Need To Know If You’ve Just Been Diagnosed With Cancer

Don't be afraid to take control of your medical care — here's how to do it.

I grew up in an era when people never questioned their doctors. However, in today’s world, having a voice in your medical care can make all the difference. This is especially true in the treatment of breast cancer, which is a heterogeneous disease. What that means is every woman’s breast cancer is completely different, so there’s no one-size-fits-all approach to treatment. Information is power, so you need to be your own best health advocate..

Never Question The Doctor…Or Can We?

If you’re a boomer like me, then you, too, remember a time when doctors were never questioned. Who’s with me here? If you were sick, you went to the doctor and he or she told you what to do…and you did it! You didn’t ask anyone else; you didn’t make suggestions of what you thought your doctor should prescribe. The doctor was...the doctor!

That’s why, when I was first diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancer and my 31-year-old daughter started talking about a second opinion, I have to admit…it felt strange. I felt like I was doing something wrong by going to another doctor. Was that saying that I didn’t trust my first (very smart!) doctor? Wasn’t I going to offend someone? But my family assured me that it’s common to get a second opinion, and they all wanted to hear another point of view. So, after going to see another wonderful doctor in the field, we felt armed with enough information to decide on a course of treatment that would be right for me.

My Life, My Cancer, My Treatment Plan

What I also realized during this time was how important MY unique story was. The doctors know the disease and the treatment options, but your contribution is also important because you know yourself best. You know how you are feeling, what your sleep, nutrition and fitness habits really are; only YOU know how you live your life during all the moments that take place outside of the doctor’s office. These factors are all important when deciding what your treatment plan will look like. You have an important seat at that discussion table.

Together, my doctors and I were able to construct a course of treatment that would be right for MY body, MY cancer and MY life. There is no one standard approach to medicine. It struck me that each of us can make a difference in the kind of health care we receive.

It’s OK To Ask Questions

And a lot of them! It’s common to feel like you only get those few minutes with your doctors and you need to “hurry up” so they can get to their next patient. But remember, you deserve their time during your appointments. Even if an appointment is only 15 minutes long, use every one of those minutes. I find that it’s best to come prepared. Keep a running list of anything that pops into your mind in between appointments and bring that list with you so you don’t forget anything. Also, remember that there are no dumb questions. If you don’t ask, you don’t know.

Oh, and one more thing…TAKE NOTES! Chemo brain is real.

Paging Dr. Google

And then… There’s the internet!

Who ever thought we would be sitting at home clicking a few buttons to learn about how to best manage our health? But, of course, that’s the first thing I did when I started chemo. I will say that my doctors strongly discouraged Googling because, as we all know, you can’t believe everything you read on the internet, and that can be dangerous. But if you seek out trusted sources, the web can be a wealth of information.

Stronger Together

At times you might feel like you’re going through this journey alone, but remember, there are others who have walked this walk and can be very valuable resources. I found that by seeking out the support and knowledge of other women who had been down the same path, I was able to gather some of the most helpful information. From this far-reaching community of breast cancer survivors, I learned about nutritional tips while undergoing chemotherapy, odd side effects and how to manage them (did you know that holding ice chips in your mouth while getting certain kinds of chemotherapy can help with mouth sores?!), as well as ways to stay focused, positive and maintain hope.

Once you’ve confronted cancer, I think it’s a pretty natural instinct to reach out your hand and help the next person along. Don’t be afraid to share your story — you never know who you might be helping along the way.

One thing I learned from going through cancer treatment is that you can customize your own experience. Ask questions, research trusted sources, listen to others who have gone through it and share your story. You can help yourself stay healthy, both in mind and body, by seeking support from those around you and by using your voice.

Hear more personal stories from Joan and other cancer survivors in the new video series, At Home With Joan.