Barbara Tako is a breast cancer survivor (2010), melanoma survivor (2014) and author of Cancer Survivorship Coping Tools—We'll Get You Through This. She is a cancer coping advocate, speaker and published writer for television, radio and other venues across the country. She lives, survives, and thrives in Minnesota with her husband, children and dog. See more at www.cancersurvivorshipcopingtools.com,or www.clutterclearingchoices.com.
A two-time, nine-year cancer survivor offers some suggestions to newly diagnosed cancer survivors.
Cancers vary widely. As a cancer survivor listening to "cancer advice," it is important to consider the sources of our information. Often, we are not comparing apples to apples when it comes to the specific type, stage, and grade of the cancer being discused, as well as the health issues, ages, and genetic or familial histories of fellow cancer patients who may be providing the advice. I have said it before and I will say it again, when it comes to advice: be careful out there.
That said, I am fortunate and grateful to be here after my first diagnosis nine years ago, and I want to pass on what I have learned:
Be a cautious listener and reader when you seek information about your cancer diagnosis. Choose a doctor with lots of experience with your specific type of cancer. If you search on the internet, find reliable sources that are research-based, including major hospitals and clinics that specialize in your cancer. The most accurate and proven information also tends to come from many sources and studies, not just one small research project. When you do stumble across something worrisome, make note of it to discuss with your own doctor. Listen with a grain of salt when people share stories about friends and family members that they think had a cancer similar to yours. Be careful.
Choose your professional team. I repeat: Choose a doctor with lots of experience with your type of cancer. Research, ask around, and assemble the best medical team for yourself that you possibly can. Interview more than one doctor. My team included a medical oncologist, a radiation oncologist, an oncology surgeon, a nutritionist, a talk therapist, and my original medical doctors. Try to make sure that labs and other important information reaches all doctors on your team, and help them to be in communication with each other when needed.
Take questions to your appointments, notes while you are there, and ideally, bring a second set of eyes and ears to listen with you at your appointments. After you have chosen a medical team wisely, trust them to do their jobs: the medical side of your treatment. Still, if you have problems with a doctor that you consistently can't resolve, do not be afraid to get a second opinion or consider switching to a different doctor.
Finally, be an overachiever at doing what your doctors say and let them know everything you are doing and how you are doing with their treatments. If you are doing anything extra like vitamins, supplements, or dietary or exercise choices, be sure your doctors know and approve them so you do not hinder their treatment plans for you.
Reach out to fellow cancer survivors at diagnosis, treatment and beyond. Please do not go through your cancer alone. Find phone, online, or in-person support. Support groups can be very helpful. In-person is best, but even Facebook has many different kinds of cancer support groups. However, when you are online, remember that people often forget to post when their treatment goes well, so try not to get bogged down in someone else's tough circumstances. Their outcome or experience will not necessarily become yours.
Be gentle with your own feelings. A cancer diagnosis can rattle you to your core. Cancer is life changing. It is takes time to cope with cancer and the frightening intense worries and feelings. Cry and rant as much as you need to at your cancer. It may take facing those feelings again and again until their power gradually subsides. I took advantage of opportunities when I was with my talk therapist or alone in my home to grieve and to vent my fears.
Journaling helped me. Being in a cancer support group helped me. Strengthening my faith and spirituality helped me. Getting outside and doing and doing mindfulness meditations helped. Sometimes distracting myself for small windows of time helped. A show, a book, a craft to keep my hands busy, or even all the visual distractions out at a store were all fair game.
Don't be shy when you need help. It is okay to ask for what you need: help with errands, groceries, meals, a ride to an appointment, etc. Sometimes people just don't know exactly how to help. They often are happy to help once they know what you need. There are also nonprofit cancer organizations in some areas with resources for cancer survivors. Fellow cancer survivors can often provide an understanding ear or thought as well. After all, we are here to help each other.