I’ve Been Diagnosed with Cancer, Now What?
A cancer diagnosis sends us reeling and leaves us scared, overwhelmed and not sure what to do next.
Yes, doctors put us on the treatment train but what else can we do to make sure we don’t fall apart? How do we navigate the days ahead, talk to our kids, or process the life altering news?
Whether you were diagnosed last week, last year or have been on this journey for a while…
These tips will help you overcome the overwhelm so you can focus on what’s important and plot a path for the days ahead with the strength and peace that seems so out of reach right now.
Last year it was estimated that over 1.8 million people were diagnosed with cancer*.
In fact the National Cancer Institutes Surveillance, Epidemiology, and End Results (SEER) Program estimates that last year alone 1,806,590 new cases of cancer will have been diagnosed.
That’s 1,806,590 mums, dads, sons, daughters, friends, teachers, pastors, neighbors, and loved ones.
The most common cancers (listed in descending order according to estimated new cases in 2020) are breast cancer, lung and bronchus cancer, prostate cancer, colon and rectum cancer, melanoma of the skin, bladder cancer, non-Hodgkin lymphoma, kidney and renal pelvis cancer, endometrial cancer, leukemia, pancreatic cancer, thyroid cancer, and liver cancer.
Prostate, lung, and colorectal cancers account for an estimated 43% of all cancers diagnosed in men in 2020. For women, the three most common cancers are breast, lung, and colorectal, and they will account for an estimated 50% of all new cancer diagnoses in women in 2020.
Chances are you’ve either been diagnosed yourself, know someone who has, or know someone who knows someone who’s walking this journey.
And I’m so sorry. I’ve said this before but I just wish cancer would get cancer and die and we could all breathe a sigh of relief.
Nearly 10 years ago my friend Winn and I were sitting on the squeaky plastic chairs of the stark, sterile room we’d been told to wait in after my colonoscopy, I was tired and still slightly drugged and loopy.
The words “We found a tumor and it’s either cancer or lymphoma” sounded more like “We found a sandwich and it’s either ham or cheese.”
As far as I can remember all I said was “Oh, OK.”
It wasn’t until my doctor called later that week to say the pathology results confirmed cancer: rectal cancer, that I fell apart.
You see, I’d lost both my mum and sister to cancer. My sweet sister a mere six weeks before at just forty-three.
Of course, I was devastated at my own diagnosis, but you’d think, having been through it with both mum and Jo, I’d have some inkling of what to do.
But no. Overwhelmed, I had no idea which way to turn or how to create order or make sense out of my swirling, shattered world.
Yes, the doctors set me on a well-worn path of radiation, chemo, and surgery.
Yes, I was following it, grateful to be actively fighting the beast within me, but I had no idea what else to do.
How to be, what to say, how to pray (without blasphemy myself into oblivion or denying God’s love and existence), who to tell, where to go, or how to talk myself down from the ledge of anxiety I’d started to call home.
This is a podcast for those with cancer but it’s also a podcast about discovering that life does not have to be pain-free to be full, then going and living it.
It’s about thriving, no just surviving, no matter what, so if you’ve just been diagnosed and you’re floundering, wondering what on earth to do next, you’re in the right place.
I wish I could give you a sure-fire list of Ten things to make your life peasy, lemon-squeasy and perfectly pain-free.
I wish I could promise a life full of rainbows and unicorns if you just follow these three steps to healing, but I can’t.
Most of all, I want to tell you that it will all be OK, but that’s not my place either and if anyone tells you they can … take it with a huge pinch of salt.
So, instead of sitting here making empty promises, I’ve compiled a list of things you can do that will help.
They’ll help you fight the fear, overcome some of the overwhelm, talk to friends and family about the things that really matter to you.
And they’ll help you navigate the complicated medical maze you’ve been airdropped into, all while navigating a new conversation with God.
These aren’t from doctors in white suites and ivory towers who’ve never sat and been told they have a tumor the size of a fun-sized KitKat growing up their rear end – yup that was me.
No, all of them come from people who’ve been where you are.
These lessons helped them travel this journey well. I did some of them myself because people told me I should. I did others because it felt like the next right thing.
Still others I wish I’d done, but didn’t have the gumption or insight to.
I hope they help you.
Share them with your friends and loved ones who are battling cancer or any other beast diagnosis. Better still forward this episode to them.
And please, oh please, share what’s worked for you.
This is by no means an exhaustive list and you know what I always say – thriving is a team sport and no one wins alone – so let’s share our ideas.
Here are mine:
Take One Day at a Time
How you feel today is most likely not how you’ll feel tomorrow; either emotionally or physically.
You’re now on the cancer roller coaster, and I know you didn’t by a ticket and hate roller coasters at the best of times…
And this is the roller coaster from hell so I want to encourage you to take each day as it comes; celebrating the highs, feeling all the painful feelings of the lows, and staying present in the present will serve you well.
As a wise rabbi once said “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself.” Matthew 6:34
You’ll be flooded with names of doctors, appointments, medical terms you never thought you’d need to understand and prescriptions to fill.
Staying organized will help reduce your stress and a calm bunny is a happier bunny.
I wish I’d taken a note-book to every appointment, but I’m as organized as a teenagers bedroom floor!
I wish I’d got this cute one with A.A. Milne’s “You are braver than you think…” quote on it.
Keep a file of medical documents and a separate one for bills.
Save emails from your doctor and insurance provider.
And even asking a friend to come and take notes can help you concentrate on what the doctor is saying.
Let It All Out
I don’t know what you’re like normally but whether you’re a closed book or a walking emoji app it’s good to let your feelings out.
To be honest, they’ll come out somehow, somewhere, and it’s better to let them out with people you trust or in a journal no one will read than exploding in a volcanic eruption of unexpressed anger at your niece’s Christening party in front of your mother-in-law.
There’s even evidence to say that writing helps us process and move through tough experiences, AND boosts the immune system.
Yeah! So let it all out.
Even to God. Reading the psalms is a great model for keeping it real with God
I LOVED my doctor. She was the bomb.
Yet as much as she explained what was going on, what the plan was and why, I still had questions; lots of questions.
If your doctor gets huffy and puffy when you ask questions, change doctor or ask if they have a cancer navigator or similar support person who can walk you through some of the things you’re going through.
If you’ve read my book, Breathe Again, you’ll know about my lovely cancer navigator, Darcy.
She was a lifesaver for me. They are there for you and the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.
If you’re not sure what to ask I’m putting a link at the end of show notes to an article from the American Cancer Society on how be your own advocate. You can check it out later if you like.
I learned this the hard way because my strength can be my biggest weakness.
I believed that with enough grit, determination and old school gumption I could handle anything.
I was wrong.
Not only do we need help when we’re battling this beast, but bringing a meal, mowing the lawn, or taking the kids to ballet are all ways the people who love you can help.
And they desperately want to help and do something practical.
So, why not make a list of ways you need help or better yet, ask a friend to be the list keeper.
They’ll be thrilled, I promise.
Everyone feels so helpless around us.
My friend Marissa Henley’s book Loving Your Friend Through Cancer: Words and Actions that Communicate Compassion is packed with helpful ideas.
You could always hand that out to friends and family who ask how they can help!
Talk to Your Kids
To my kids a cancer diagnosis meant one thing; you’d die, and die quickly.
It was what the experience of losing their mum and auntie had taught them.
Telling our kids I had cancer was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
We told them early when it was still only a maybe.
We told them what we knew and what we didn’t.
We told them God would be with us and loves us no matter what.
I’m glad we did.
It set the tone for how we’d roll – in full disclosure. No half truths.
This was how we rolled but I’m no parenting or cancer expert – just someone who’s been there, done that and got the t-shirt to prove it – so if you’re not sure how to talk to your kids about your diagnosis I’ve got more great advice from the American Cancer Society.
Find Your Peeps
Finding a community of fellow survivors was the last thing I wanted to do.
I didn’t want to wear a blue tutu or sit around talking about my feelings and alternative health options.
But if I’m honest “all that kumbaya nonsense” as I called it, frightened me.
It meant I couldn’t deny the reality of my diagnosis and I was scared.
Scared of getting close to people with cancer.
Having lost mum and Jo, I wasn’t sure I couldn’t handle more grief.
But when I finally gave in and found my people, they became my life line.
Mine was a Facebook Group for colorectal cancer patients called ColonTown (I know, isn’t the name great and if you’re part of Colon-town – hey!), but check your hospital, church, or cancer society for places as well as Facebook.
They will love you well in a way your family and friends can’t.
They can offer empathy and not just sympathy. They understand in a way even your nearest and dearest never could. Don’t be a woos like I was.
Check out Financial Resources
Or better still, find someone who can help you do that.
The financial burden of a diagnosis is tremendous whether you’ve got gold-plated insurance or not.
There are resources out there to help navigate the mine field.
I’m not an expert and wouldn’t dream of giving financial advice but I can point you to some good resources. Again, they’re in the show notes.
I’ll confess, this sounds odd and I get it.
After chemo, radiation, and surgery, and enduring my second round of chemo I didn’t have the capacity to love others.
But here’s the thing. I had bought into the myth of costly kindness hook, line and sinker.
I’m ashamed to say it, but I believed helping others would come at too high a personal cost.
One I just couldn’t pay right then. But I was wrong. I should have listened to Mother Teresa who said to do something small thing with great love.
I couldn’t do something great for anyone but I could do something small with great love, and when I did, it was me who was blessed the most.
So, let me encourage you to reach out and love someone in a simple small way.
It will bless them, help you take your mind off your own journey and maybe you’ll make a friend.
Pray Like God’s Your BFF.
At the best of times many of us aren’t quite sure how to pray.
And if we do resolve to spend time with God it easily fizzles out as we get bored or don’t see Him answering our prayers.
It’s easy to pray as a last resort or when we need a parking space (yes, guilty) but how many of us pray like God’s our BFF sitting across from us on the sofa eating Haag n Daaz out of a tub with a spoon?
I’m not going to get all churchy on you and sing Jesus Loves Me This I Know, or shame you into a false prayer life, but I do want to encourage you to talk to God.
Yes, like He’s your BFF, because when we do, we pray in a way that’s open, honest, unafraid of baring our soul and vulnerable.
Yes, God is God; sovereign, mighty, all powerful, etc…
But He loves you deeply.
He’s big enough for our anger and questions.
He loves us in a way that means we can’t lose His love by offending Him or being absent for the last twenty years.
Try Him friend. I promise He’ll meet you right where you are and He won’t let you down.
I hope this list of things you can do and ask yourself has been useful as you navigate this new journey you’re on.
Below is a list of resources that I think you will find helpful as well as where I got some of my statistics I used:
Let’s take a moment to pray using our simple guided prayer format that uses the acronym TRUST.
Thanking Him for who he is and what he’s done. Resting in his love. Unburdening our hearts. Surrendering our hopes, fears and needs. Taking Him at his word.
If you haven’t already, you can download your own copy of our TRUST prayer practice on a beautiful book mark below!
Or listen on Apple Podcasts.
If you haven’t already, download your TRUST prayer book mark HERE so you can pray along with me and pray with more confidence and less doubt in the week ahead.
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