5 Tips for Taking Charge of Your Healthcare
by Stephanie V. Blank, MD, FACOG
A cancer diagnosis is naturally unsettling, evoking a wide range of emotions. Because talking about gynecologic organs is still practically taboo for so many women, a below-the-belt cancer diagnosis can be even more distressing. Studies consistently demonstrate that many women are reluctant to even ask their doctor questions about gynecologic cancer testing, risk factors, and genetic predisposition, much less discuss potential symptoms.
It is important to remember that your diagnosis doesn’t define you. Being true to yourself is essential for a gynecologic survivor at any point in her journey. Moreover, I cannot emphasize enough how crucial it is to be your own advocate.
Here are some tips that I hope will help you achieve that goal.
1. Be informed. Learn all you can about your own disease, including the pathology of it, the various treatment options available for you (with expected outcomes and potential side effects), next steps, and any clinical trials for which you might be a candidate.
2. Find a gynecologic oncologist, and make sure you are comfortable with your medical team. Seeing the correct specialist or gynecologic oncologist results in better outcomes. Get a second opinion to ensure your own comfort level. Too often, women worry about offending a doctor, and that should never be the case. Most doctors will expect you to seek confirmation of a diagnosis or treatment plan. And again, the more informed you are, the better. As you go through treatment, being fully comfortable with your medical team is essential.
3. Ask questions. Open communication with your doctor is essential at all times. It is important to plan every visit to your doctor, even writing questions down so you don’t forget anything. If you experience new symptoms or an adverse reaction to treatment, make sure you share this information. Doctors want you to feel well and will be pleased to hear you say you’re feeling fine. But, if you aren’t, be honest with your doctor about how you feel.
Too often, women worry about offending a doctor, and that should never be the case.It is also a good practice to take someone with you to appointments. A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming in itself. As you learn about your specific disease, treatment plan, and next steps, the process can be even more overwhelming, and it can be tough to absorb it all.
4. Build a support team. A cancer diagnosis is unquestionably emotional, and having a support team is essential. Family, friends, a religious community – whatever works best for you and makes you the most comfortable – surround yourself with a support team that will help you stay positive. There are numerous resources available online, and if group settings suit you, there are support groups with people who will listen to you, answer questions, and provide encouragement. Your medical team should be able to provide information on support services available for survivors and families. In addition, many survivors turn to advocacy and support as part of their own healing process, and these women are willing and able to provide support for others going through a similar experience.
5. Focus on wellness. As you go through treatment, talk to your doctor about how you can maintain a healthy lifestyle. While intense physical activity may not be possible during treatment, many survivors find that returning to such activities as walking or yoga is supremely beneficial. Some survivors even choose to train for a cancer support run or walk (such as the upcoming National Race to End Women’s Cancer), combining wellness and advocacy. For many women, this type of endeavor can be tremendously empowering.
Coping with gynecologic cancer is an occasion when you need to give yourself time for you – start that art class or cooking class you always wanted to take. Be creative. Celebrate life, and remain positive.
Dr. Stephanie Blank is a professor in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Division of Gynecologic Oncology, at the New York University School of Medicine in New York, NY, where she serves as Gynecologic Oncology fellowship director, as well as associate division director of Gynecologic Oncology. Dr. Blank is a full member of the Society of Gynecologic Oncologists and the American Society of Clinical Oncology, as well as a gynecologic oncologist at the NYU Clinical Cancer Center and a principal investigator in numerous cancer research studies.
The National Race to End Women’s Cancer is a run/walk held by the Foundation for Women’s Cancer to raise awareness and research funding to defeat gynecologic cancers. You can learn more about the Foundation at FoundationForWomensCancer.org.
This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2016.