When the Doctor Says “Cancer”

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2015

Watch the Cancer.Net Video: When the Doctor Says Cancer, with Maurie Markman, MD, adapted from this content.

It is a situation people often fear: sitting in the doctor's office and hearing the word “cancer.” People diagnosed with cancer often say they were stunned when they heard the news and unable to process what was said afterward. After the initial shock, consider the following steps to learn about your diagnosis, find treatment, and cope.

Learn about your diagnosis

Cancer is a group of more than 100 diseases. It is important to understand your specific type of cancer or cancer-related syndrome, the diagnosis process, and the treatment. Take an active role in your cancer care by asking questions, accessing resources, and making informed treatment decisions.

During your initial doctor’s visit, you may struggle to process the amount of information you receive. The unfamiliar medical language may confuse you. Ask your doctor to explain any medical terms you don’t understand. And don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Consider bringing a family member or friend to your appointments to help listen and take notes. Or record the conversation so you can replay it later.

Some patients desire more information, while others prefer less. Tell your doctor and health care team your preferences for receiving information about your diagnosis, treatment, and chance of recovery.

The Internet is also a useful tool for finding cancer information. But you must use good judgment when searching online. Ask yourself these questions as you visit cancer information websites.

Find medical care

After receiving a cancer diagnosis, you should find an oncologist—a doctor who specializes in treating people with cancer. Ask your primary care doctor, family members, and friends for referrals. Or search online to find an oncologist in your area.

Also consider getting a second opinion. This involves visiting another doctor to gather more information about your diagnosis, confirm your diagnosis, or hear about a different approach to your treatment. Getting a second opinion can boost your confidence in making decisions about your cancer care. Many doctors encourage their patients to seek a second opinion.

Ask your doctor what clinical trials are available as treatment options for your type of cancer. A clinical trial is a research study to test whether a new treatment is safe, effective, and possibly better than standard treatment.

Get organized

You will need a system to track all of your research, appointments, test results, records, and finances. Organization helps you gain the most value from the time spent with your health care providers so you can make well-informed decisions.

If you have a smartphone or tablet, you can download Cancer.Net’s free mobile app to stay organized. It provides cancer information, tracks side effects, and saves prescription information. The app also records answers to your personal questions.

Find support for coping

You are not alone as you cope with your cancer diagnosis and treatment. Find support from family, friends, and community resources to manage emotional, practical, and financial issues.

Emotional support. You may experience complex emotions during your diagnosis and treatment. In addition to talking with your doctor, discuss your concerns with family members and friends. You may consider joining a support group to share your experience and learn from others facing similar situations.

Counselors can also help you process difficult emotions. People diagnosed with cancer often become discouraged or scared. But if you aren’t participating in your normal activities or are struggling to concentrate, sleep, or eat, tell your doctor and ask about counseling options.

Other outlets to express your emotions and relieve stress include:

Practical support. As you deal with your cancer diagnosis and treatment, you may wonder how you can manage your normal responsibilities, including work and parenting. Accept help from others and reevaluate your priorities.

Financial support. The cost of cancer care can be high and a burden for some people. Soon after your diagnosis, begin talking openly with your health care team about the costs of your care. Understanding what costs to expect before starting treatment can help you manage cancer’s financial impact. Learn more about managing the cost of cancer care and find helpful financial resources.

Finally, although cancer is a serious disease, you have reasons to be hopeful. In the past several decades, major milestones have been reached in the care and treatment of people with cancer, including metastatic cancer. These include advances in treatment and supportive care for side effects.

More Information

Navigating Cancer Care


Additional Resource

CancerCare: Coping With Cancer: Tools to Help You Live