Newly Diagnosed with Cancer

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

The first few days following a cancer diagnosis are like riding on top of a speeding train. You’re hanging on for dear life and can’t quite see what’s ahead. Although every situation is somewhat different, this is what I generally suggest:

  • Focus on one step at a time. If you are having a biopsy next week, focus on that biopsy and do not let your mind wander to what might happen next.
  • Take someone with you to medical appointments. They can take notes and help you remember what was said.
  • Do not hesitate to ask your doctor to repeat something.
  • Family members, friends, and complete strangers will give you advice. Be wary when they say, “You should do…” Though well-intentioned, they do not know what is best for you.
  • You control who to tell about your cancer diagnosis and when to tell them.
  • Remember that cancer treatments change rapidly. What you hear from people who were treated in the past is out of date.
  • Understand that cancer is not a single disease. Lung cancer and breast cancer are very different diseases. There are even multiple types of breast cancer. What you hear about cancer in other people probably does not apply to your cancer.
  • Survival statistics are averages. They can be helpful if you want a general idea of the prognosis for people with your disease, but they can’t predict what will happen to you as an individual.
  • Do not hesitate to get a second opinion if you think it might be helpful. Your doctor won’t mind. (If your doctor does mind, you should get another doctor).
  • A new cancer diagnosis is rarely a medical emergency. You generally have several days or even weeks to explore your options. (Some situations do require immediate attention – ask your doctor how long it is safe to wait before beginning treatment).
  • Do not begin a radical “cancer curing” diet or major lifestyle changes before or during treatment. Just eat sensibly and nutritiously, exercise moderately, and get plenty of rest. You can make whatever lifestyle and diet changes you want after treatment is over.
  • Nearly everyone undergoing cancer treatment experiences fatigue. It is probably the most common and least publicized side effect. Conserve your energy for activities that are most important to you.
  • Nothing goes in a straight line. You will feel better one day; then you will feel worse; then you will feel better. Do not be discouraged by the down days.

Being diagnosed with cancer is life-changing for many and life-disruptive for nearly everyone. It is difficult at first, but once the decisions are made and treatment begins, most people gradually regain their rhythms. Cancer isn’t fun, but treatment often ends up being more manageable than people expect. It’s a club that no one wants to join, but trust me, you’re in good company.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns


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