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The Cancer Checklist: What to Do When You're Diagnosed

1. Take a Pause

Before you take action, it’s important to take time to process your emotions. Give yourself time to grieve, cry, and simply feel all of the overwhelming feelings that come with a life-altering cancer diagnosis.

2. Find a Support System

Along with being emotionally overwhelming, cancer can be logistically overwhelming, too. Don’t go at your diagnosis or treatment alone. Enlist the help of a support person – whether it be a trusted friend, family member, or patient advocate – who can help you navigate the process by researching physicians, formulating questions, attending appointments with you (this may have to be done via the phone or teleconferencing given COVID restrictions), taking notes, and organizing paperwork.

3. Do Your Research

Going in informed will help you better understand your diagnosis and feel more prepared to make decisions about your care. Take time to research your diagnosis and doctors in your area who specialize in that type of cancer. Identifying specialists is especially important if you have a rare type of cancer, which will benefit from a doctor who’s familiar with that specific diagnosis.

However, remember to proceed with caution when doing your research. Make sure you’re consulting reputable sources (, the American Cancer Society, and academic institutions are all safe bets) and avoid the urge to look up statistics or read stories of others’ experiences. Not only can this be frightening and discouraging, but statistics only speak to averages, not individuals. Each person with cancer has their own experience and set of circumstances.

4. Seek a Second (or Even Third) Opinion

Before undergoing treatment, consider seeking multiple opinions from multiple medical professionals. In addition to ensuring you have the expertise of more than one professional behind you, having a second opinion can also provide peace of mind when making treatment decisions. Don’t be afraid to share with your doctors that you’re seeking another opinion; asking for a second opinion is common, and many doctors welcome the input of other medical professionals.

5. Get Organized

You will be getting a lot of paperwork, including copies of test results, medical visit summaries, bills, and insurance statements. Find a way to organize all of this information before it piles up so you can easily access medical records and handle insurance and billing.

6. Take Care of Your Emotional Wellbeing

It can be easy for your emotional wellbeing to fall by the wayside when you’re focusing on your physical health and caught up in all the logistics of cancer treatment. However, it’s easy to get overwhelmed, so make sure you’re taking care of yourself emotionally, too. Join support groups, exercise, practice mindfulness, or see a therapist regularly – whatever you need to do to make sure you’re addressing your mental health.

7. Set Boundaries

Taking care of your emotional wellbeing also entails setting boundaries around how you talk about your cancer. When I was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer, one of the things that surprised me most was the volume of misguided or inappropriate comments made to me by people who were caring and well-intentioned but didn’t understand what I was going through. These remarks ranged from sharing stories of friends with the same type of cancer who may have had bad outcomes to offering miracle cures. While not only negative a lot of the time, these comments also put the emotional burden on me to respond to a sensitive topic. It’s perfectly OK to politely shut these conversations down; find a way to tell people who offer unsolicited advice that you’re working with your care team to find the best treatment for you, and leave it at that.


The first few weeks after a cancer diagnosis are a stressful and scary time. Taking care of yourself, being proactive and informed, and surrounding yourself with a support system – whether it be family and friends, a support group, or a patient advocate – will make this time a lot less stressful.

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