How to deal with a cancer diagnosis

Cancer is a terrible word. And whether you’re waiting for test results or you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, this time can be frustrating for both you and your loved ones.

“A cancer diagnosis is traumatic,” says licensed professional consultant Caitlin McFelimi, head of the Cancer Support Program at the Hartford HealthCare Cancer Institute. “When you hear the S word, you wonder if I’m going to die?”

We asked McFelimi for some tips to help patients cope with this part of their journey.

When I go to see my doctor to hear my diagnosis, what do I need to do to prepare?

“Waiting for information is hard. It’s like an emotional torture chamber,” says McFelimi. If you’re preparing for a meeting, McPhelimy recommends:

  • Using your social support system, whether it’s family or friends.
  • Adopting an emotional survival mode, which means doing whatever works for you, whether it’s relaxing or being busy.
  • Prepare for the meeting by writing down questions. Ask a friend or family member to review your questions with you. They may think of something you don’t have.

Do I have to bring someone with me to my appointment?

The short answer is yes, McFelimi says.

“At best you have someone with you. They can be an extra set of ears, they can take notes for you. You will get a lot of information and someone can help. After that, question them and ask what they heard, in case you missed something.”

What immediate coping strategies can I use at my diagnostic appointment?

Most importantly, McFelimi says, if a vendor is talking too fast or using terms you don’t understand, talk about it.

“Don’t be afraid to speak out loud. Ask them to slow down. Ask them to clarify. You should definitely use this time to meet your needs during the appointment, and the doctor should be happy to help you.”

According to McFelimi, a cancer diagnosis is shocking, even if you suspect it. “Inhale. In this moment, allow yourself to feel what you feel. There is no right or wrong way to deal with the news.”

What to do immediately after diagnosis?

“There is no right answer to this question,” she says. “Some people want to share the news, and some people want to spread it widely.”

Others want to keep it a secret from their core group. Listen to what feels right to you. And know that there is flexibility that you can change your mind. Follow your intuition.

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What about support groups? How will I know if one of them is right for me?

McFelimi organizes many support groups for the Cancer Institute, so she immediately admits her bias.

“I know they can be extremely helpful in normalizing a very abnormal situation,” she says. “Now you are part of a club that no one wants to be in. And these people understand the same language and can give you advice, guidance and support.”

She always encourages patients to “at least try. Your friends and family can provide some level of support, but connecting with people just like you can provide a deeper connection and help you deal with the feelings of isolation you may be having. Everyone is different, and you may decide that this is not for you, but at least try.

Can my attitude towards a cancer diagnosis affect my response to treatment or even outcome?

According to McFelimi, there have been many studies stating that a positive or optimistic attitude brings some benefits. But this does not mean that you are limited to only positive emotions.

“There are two truths. You may be scared, angry, disappointed, sad. And they must be approved. You can have these feelings and also be positive and hopeful.”

When should I seek professional help?

However, if these feelings of hopelessness, anger, or sadness become overwhelming, “then you have crossed the line and it’s time to ask for more help.” The Cancer Institute offers social workers and counseling services to all patients.

“Our oncologists are very careful about emotional side effects, but I encourage patients to actively voice any concerns. Talk to your oncology team, they work with a multidisciplinary team including our support team and we contact you directly to discuss resources and recommendations.

“It’s important to have an ongoing conversation because your emotional needs may not come to the fore at the time of your diagnosis. They can come even after the end of the treatment, and we are here and happy to help at any point along the way.”

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