How to Handle a Cancer Diagnosis

You may have an illness, but you’re still you

woman with cancer at home sipping tea

You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer and your world’s been turned upside down. You’re scared and overwhelmed. Suddenly your new identity is cancer patient.


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But that’s not entirely true. You’re still you.

“It’s important to not let cancer define you,” says oncologist Mikkael Sekeres, MD. “You’re not the disease. When you’re first given a cancer diagnosis, it’s completely normal to have the cancer be the focus of all of your thoughts, and those of your family and friends. But while it’s easy to define yourself as a cancer patient, remember who you are and what your goals are. You’re still the same person you always have been.”

Maintaining your normal lifestyle

To help you retain your sense of self, it’s important to keep doing the same things you’d normally do.


For example, if you exercise, continue to do so. If you’re the type of person who works out on a treadmill or walks every single day, keep doing it or you’re going to go nuts, says Dr. Sekeres. But, it’s a good idea to check with your doctor first to make sure exercise is OK within the context of your cancer treatment.

The same thing holds true if you’re used to going out to dinner with friends or your spouse, keep doing that, again checking with your doctor first.

Dr. Sekeres shares more tips to help with the transition and give you a sense of control after a cancer diagnosis:

  • First, get a second opinion. Some cancers have to be treated immediately. But many don’t, which gives you more time to think about your treatment options. Go to specialists for your particular form of cancer and find the absolute best therapy for you.
  • Get the facts about your cancer straight. Learn as much as your can about your particular type of cancer, including where it is, how it spreads, possible treatment options and what you can expect during treatment. Write down your questions and concerns and bring them with you when you see your doctor. Continue asking questions during the duration of your cancer treatment and journey.
  • Let friends & family help you. Have a friend or family member go with you to the doctor’s office. Some people say, “When I go to the doctor my mind goes completely blank.” An extra brain and extra set of ears will help you hear what’s going on and process the information afterward. Lean on the support of others as well when it comes to errands, transportation and household chores. You may feel as if you’re imposing on your friends or family to ask for a ride to the doctor’s office or for their help with a grocery shopping trip; often, they’re hoping you can give them concrete ways they can help.
  • Find emotional support. Coping with cancer is much more than just treating the physical aspects. Many people focus so much on physical changes that they may not realize how important it is to address the emotional and mental aspects of cancer too. Find a support network beyond your oncology team.
  • Keep up with routine health maintenance. Along with seeing your oncologist, continue to go to your primary care physician for routine cancer screening and checkups.

And do your best to try to be the person you’ve always been. You’re much, much more than an illness.

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