As a newly diagnosed cancer patient, there are a lot of things you’ll have to do – like appointments, tests, and scans – and you don’t have much say about them. It can feel overwhelming to have so much out of your control! However, you do have certain choices that can help alleviate some of the burden and tailor the experience to your own individual needs and preferences.
Here are a few things I wish I knew when I was first diagnosed. Being more acutely aware of these choices would have helped me as I took the plunge into the cancer experience.
Self-Advocacy is Critical
Before my cancer diagnosis, I had practically zero experience in the medical world. I had never had so much as a broken bone, let alone a full-blown health crisis. Because of this, I was unaccustomed to interacting with doctors in complex situations. I kept my comments minimal and never considered questioning a doctor’s decisions.
Through my cancer experience, I learned that I needed to speak up when things didn’t feel right.
While doctors are indeed the health experts, I am the self-expert. A doctor doesn’t know what it feels like to live in my unique body every day. It’s my responsibility to explain my situation as best I can to my doctors and push back when I am not getting the answers and attention needed to address a particular issue.
Self-advocacy is so important, especially when facing a serious illness.
Practicing open and honest communication with your medical team will give you ownership of your treatment approach, even when so much seems chaotic and confusing.
Remember that you always have the right to tell doctors when you don’t understand something, when you have unresolved issues, or when you would like to seek a second opinion from another medical professional.
There is No One “Right” Way to Be a Cancer Patient
We’ve all seen cancer depicted in the movies, and many of us have witnessed a loved one face it in real life, too. Until we are diagnosed with cancer ourselves, we may have a preconceived idea about what the cancer experience looks and feels like.
But cancer is as unique as the individual facing it – no matter their cancer type and stage, age, gender, or family situation.
It’s okay to feel however you feel – angry, sad, confused, all of the above – and you are allowed to approach cancer in whatever way feels natural for you. Some people may want to share their cancer experience with others on a blog or social media, while others will want to keep it completely confidential.
If you lose your hair from chemotherapy, maybe you’ll wear a wig… or maybe you’ll rock the bare head. If you’ll be having a mastectomy, maybe you’ll choose aesthetic flat closure instead of breast reconstruction. No matter what you decide, this is your life and your body, and however you choose to exist as a cancer patient is completely up to you.
If You Have Time Before Starting Treatment:
Life with cancer is a whirlwind, and time is a key component in getting the care you need. Even with a short window of opportunity, there are a few preparations you may want to consider before starting treatment.
- Fertility: If you are considering having biological children in the future, you’ll want to discuss next steps with a fertility specialist, as treatment could impact your reproductive system. Any fertility preservation you might want to pursue should be discussed before starting cancer treatment.
- Therapy: If you’re not already seeing one, a therapist can be an excellent resource to help you process your cancer experience. Cancer tends to wreak havoc on the mind (as well as the body), and you’ll probably be experiencing a wide range of emotions as you navigate your diagnosis and approach your next steps.
Having a mental health professional on your team will ensure that you are taking care of your whole self as you face your new reality. And you can seek out a therapist at any time, of course – but personally, I wish I had started therapy earlier in my cancer experience!
- Hair Loss: It can be daunting to think about the physical changes you’ll undergo while in treatment, like losing your hair or having major surgery. While a lot of these changes are unavoidable, you can start to prepare by testing out shorter hairstyles or even get your eyebrows micro-bladed (yep, chemo can make those fall out, too!).
- Photoshoot: Additionally, some cancer patients choose to commemorate their pre-treatment lives with photoshoots – from empowering solo pictures to family portraits, and everything in between. If there is anything you’d like to do to capture your life as it is before jumping into cancer treatment, go ahead and do it.
Both physically and mentally, a cancer diagnosis is hardly something you can prepare for.
It can be a confusing and scary time for you and your loved ones. Remember that you are a unique individual and no two cancer experiences are the same. Be gentle with expectations of yourself – you won’t be the exact same person you were before cancer, and that’s OK.
May you feel empowered knowing that you do have some say in how you take on this challenge.