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You’ve Got Cancer. Now What?

A Doctor’s Tips to Help You Navigate Through Diagnosis and Treatment

by Gail Gazelle, MD, FACP

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When cancer strikes or there is a recurrence, your life changes completely. Everything you took for granted is now in question. People often feel like they are living on a roller coaster.

When you have cancer, sometimes it can be difficult to get the medical system to work for you. There are so many choices, so many changes, so many concerns. Good news, bad news, and sometimes no news at all. There are no courses on this. If you or someone you love is affected by cancer, the following tips can help you get through the process:

Everyone being treated for cancer needs an advocate. Even if you are used to being in charge, right now, you have cancer and you are putting much of your energy into fighting off the disease. Even doctors say that when they are the ones who have cancer, they become intimidated by the medical system and don’t always think clearly. Doctors often have colleagues to advocate for them. Your advocate can be a spouse, family member, friend, neighbor, or a paid advocate.

Always bring your advocate. Whether you are going to a doctor’s appointment, receiving chemotherapy, or going to the hospital, be sure to bring your advocate. Even if you think it is something you can handle alone, bring your advocate just in case.

You have just received overwhelming news. As with any other unexpected bad news, it is normal to find yourself in a state of shock.

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Dr. Gail Gazelle

Feeling shocked is a normal reaction. Feeling shocked is a normal reaction to being told you have cancer or that the cancer has come back. You have just received overwhelming news. As with any other unexpected bad news, it is normal to find yourself in a state of shock. Don’t expect to be operating at full capacity.

Don’t be surprised if you have difficulty thinking clearly. Not being able to think clearly is part of being in shock. You are not going crazy. Your ability to think clearly will return. Your mind is simply trying to cope with overwhelming news.

This is not your fault. When people receive a cancer diagnosis, they often feel that they are to blame. It is normal to try to figure out why you got cancer. For the majority of people who develop cancer, however, there is no clear reason. It is not because of something you did or did not do.

Don’t try to do everything. Whether it’s taking your children to sports activities or thinking clearly at a meeting at work, you just may not be up to it. Try not to be too hard on yourself about the limitations cancer has imposed on you.

Pace yourself. You likely won’t have the same energy level you had prior to cancer. Don’t try to push yourself to do everything you used to be able to do. You may need to complete a task, and then take a rest. Many people being treated for cancer find that they need a daily nap.

Try to accept that uncertainty is now a part of your life. Uncertainty and unpredictability are a part of life when you have cancer. This can be more difficult to weather than the cancer itself. As hard as this can be, trying to fight this will just lead to more stress.

Remind yourself that you are going through a period where your normal life is on hold. Not forever, but right now, you are in a different phase of your life. Knowing this will make it easier to plan and to get through this challenging time.

Never forget that you are important and that you are more than a disease to be treated. You are a unique person and you deserve to get the care that meets your needs, not just the care that treats your disease®.

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Dr. Gazelle works as a direct patient advocate for people living in the Boston area. Board-certified in internal medicine, Dr. Gazelle is an assistant clinical professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School. She is the author of “Don’t Leave the Hospital Sicker Than You Went In! A Doctor’s Tips for a Healthy and Safe Hospital Experience” and “Being Treated for Cancer? A Doctor’s Tips to Keep Your Life Healthy and Manageable.” For more information about Dr. Gazelle, visit

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, May/June 2010.