Let New Patients Know When Their Cancer Isn't a Death Sentence


Two-time cancer survivor encourages newly diagnosed patients to keep hope.

Give cancer patients hope when you can. What the patient thinks and feels may not match up with their diagnosis. To hear, "You have cancer" is a terrible thing. I remember when I heard those words over seven years ago, I figured I would die and die quickly. That is what it felt like to me at the time. Honestly, it has taken months and even years for me to realize that my feelings did not really match up with my diagnosis; death wasn't imminent and there was a strong probability of long-term survival.

Keep hope. Share hope. Yes, cancer is frightening and the fear, in addition to the diagnosis, changes your life as you know it. No matter how much I wished and hoped, there was no reversing those terrible words "You have cancer." And yet, even with my recent PALB2 genetic diagnosis, there still is hope.

As I have said before, my oncology talk therapist said to me, "We will get you through this." That was the first time that I felt less alone with my breast cancer. I also felt less alone the first time I attended a breast cancer support group with fellow survivors. These connections immediately limited cancer's emotional power over me.

I also still take comfort in something from a breast cancer survivor support group meeting I attended years ago. A fellow survivor mentioned that a survivor friend had told her, "It is a tough year and half to two years, but then things start to get better." She said hearing the time window spelled out improved her perspective about her breast cancer. Cancer seems to shrink when you consider that the timeframe for active treatments has an end date. It implies that life will get back to some sort of normal.

As someone who now knows she has a breast cancer gene mutation, I am more aware than ever that cancer can recur. I need to keep hope. I have kept hope for over seven years, and I still keep hope. So why, initially at diagnosis, won't the doctor touch your arm and say, "I understand that this diagnosis is a scary and frightening thing to hear, but keep hope. We have treatments and help for you." Why didn't this happen? In my case, there were several surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation and hormonal therapy, yet no words of comfort at the beginning of it all. Repeat: Cancer isn't necessarily an instant death sentence. Keep and cultivate your hope.

Cancer creates fear: fear of recurrence, fear of death, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and emotional isolation, so please treat all of those concerns in the beginning, either at diagnosis or shortly afterward. It is one thing to go through the physical pain of the cancer treatments. It is another thing to deal with the emotional collateral damage. The medical community can do better with this. Provide a little human support, connect us with support groups and share the name and number of an oncology talk therapist at diagnosis. It is critical to connect with fellow survivors who understand what you are experiencing.

I believe the medical community is probably already better at delivering a cancer diagnosis than they were seven years ago. At least let newly diagnosed folks know that they can find help on the internet. Facebook has many cancer support groups that are easy to find and to join. What do you think about how your diagnosis was managed at the beginning? What do you wish had been included that wasn't? Where did your hope come from in the beginning? You are not alone and please do not let cancer steal your hope.

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