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Just Got Diagnosed?

Here’s How You Can Prepare for the Road Ahead

by Gary R. McClain, PhD

Wellness image

“I just got diagnosed with cancer. Now what do I do?” As a therapist who works with people facing illness, I hear this question often. People come into my office struggling with their reaction to their cancer diagnosis, as well as all those strange and uncomfortable feel­ings that come with it. We talk about their fears and hopes regarding treat­ment, and we talk about what a cancer diagnosis means for their future.

Why Me?
If you’re like most people who have recently been diagnosed with cancer, you might be asking that unanswerable question, along with a few others: What will happen to me? What will my life be like? Will I be changed? It’s normal to feel this way. But it’s also possible to face your cancer diag­nosis, and all it will mean for you, from a position of power. This requires that you first form an optimistic outlook and arm yourself with information. It means you’ll need to connect with the people in your life who can help you as you develop a sense of a greater meaning beyond your day-to-day experience. It also means you’ll need to devise a realistic but hopeful plan for your future.

Allowing yourself to experience your negative emotions may give way to hope, optimism, and a renewed passion for life.

Author of Article photo

Dr. Gary McClain

Don’t Be Afraid to Feel
In many ways, the emotional reaction to a cancer diagnosis resembles the grieving pro­cess. A cancer diagnosis can feel like a loss; one meeting with your doctor suddenly changes the course of your life, at least for the near future. You may feel like your life has been turned up­side down. And you may grieve your pre-cancer lifestyle.

You can start preparing for the future by acknowledging the emotions you’re experiencing right now. It’s only human to have feelings of fear, anger, disappointment, and confusion when you’re told you have cancer. These feelings are normal, so don’t judge yourself harshly for having them. And don’t try to just ignore them, either. Your feel­ings won’t disappear just because you don’t want to deal with them. But when you acknowledge your true feelings, even those you wish you didn’t have, the effect is almost magical. Those difficult feelings lose their power over you. Sure, they might reappear at times, but allowing yourself to experience your negative emotions may also give way to hope, optimism, and a renewed passion for life.

Start Talking
Get to know other people with cancer, and learn how they’re coping. Get tips from the peo­ple you meet who are coping well with their own diagnosis. Talk to positive role models. Talk to your friends and family, and have conversations about how you can support each other in all aspects of your relationship, not just those related to your diagnosis. You might even want to consider joining a support group, linking up with online patient communities, meeting with a mental health professional, or all of the above. You don’t have to go through this alone.

Don’t Neglect Your Spirit
When you feel connected to your higher power, your sense of meaning expands beyond what you see and experience. There are many ways to define and experience spirituality. You can pray, practice medi­tation, read the works of spiritual teachers and apply their philosophies to your life, or become a member of a religious com­munity, church, or synagogue. Simply listening to music that is meaningful to you, doing something relaxing, enjoy­ing a hobby that makes you forget about everything else going on in your life, and spending time with loved ones can also be spiritual experiences.

A cancer diagnosis can feel like a punch in the gut, followed by the sense that life as you have known it has come to an end. Here is what you need to keep in mind: You are not a diagnosis. Your diagnosis is only a part of who you are. Remind yourself every day that you are a fascinating, multidimensional person with a past, a present, and a future that belongs to you and you alone. Try to see your diagnosis for what it is, and then look beyond it. Embrace your life with all of its triumphs, setbacks, surprises, and detours.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Dr. Gary McClain is a therapist, patient advocate, and author living in New York, NY, who specializes in working with individuals who have been diagnosed with chronic and catastrophic medical conditions, their care­givers, and professionals. You can visit his website at

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2014.