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What to Do If You’ve Been Diagnosed With Cancer


You’re not alone if you’ve recently been diagnosed with cancer. The National Cancer Institute (NIH) estimates that 1.7 million new cancer cases were detected in the United States in 2016. According to the National Institutes of Health, more than one-third of men and women will be diagnosed with cancer at some time in their life. An specialist examines cell or tissue samples under a microscope to make a cancer diagnosis.

Understand the difference between cancer diagnosis and a prognosis 

According to Merriam Webster, a diagnosis, such as a cancer diagnosis, is the “act of identifying a disease from its signs and symptoms.” A prognosis is the “prospect of recovery as anticipated from the usual course of disease.” According to the National Cancer Institute, many factors can affect your prognosis. These factors include:

  • The type of cancer
  • The location of the cancer in your body
  • The stage of cancer (the size and whether it has spread to other parts of the body)
  • The cancer’s grade or how likely it is to grow and spread
  • Your age and health
  • How you respond to treatment

Understand survival statistics after a cancer diagnosis

According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), many people still believe that cancer equals death. Yet there are more than 14 million people living in the United States today who have or had cancer, many who have survived a cancer diagnosis.

The survival rates among different cancers varies greatly and changes according to cancer stage, according to ACS.

  • For example, when including all stages of prostate cancer, the prostate cancer 5-year relative survival rate after a cancer diagnosis is 99%.
  • For stage II breast cancer, the relative survival rate after a cancer diagnosis is about 93%. For stage IV breast cancer, the 5-year relative survival rate is about 22%.
  • The 5-year survival rate for Stage IA cervical cancer after a cancer diagnosis is about 93%. For stage IB cervical cancer, the 5-year survival rate is about 80%.
  • The 5-year survival rate after a cancer diagnosis for non-small cell lung cancer stage IA is about 49%. For stage IIIB non-small cell lung cancer the survival rate is about 5%.
  • The survival rates for brain and spinal cord tumors vary by your age. The 5-year relative survival rate for glioblastoma after a cancer diagnosis in a 20-44 year old is 19%. In a 55-64 year old the 5-year relative survival rate for glioblastoma is 5%.
  • The 5-year survival rate for Stage IA melanoma is around 97%. For stage IV melanoma the 5-year survival rate after a cancer diagnosis is about 15% to 20%.

According to the American Cancer Society, survival rates are only estimates and can’t predict what will happen to any individual person. Another limitation of 5-year year survival rate statistics is that they are based on people treated 5 years ago and don’t factor in how treatments have improved over time. Talk to your doctor for more information on your specific situation following your cancer diagnosis.

Understand your treatment options after a cancer diagnosis

Following a cancer diagnosis, the National Cancer Institute (NIH) lists a variety of cancer treatments. Your therapy will be determined by the type and stage of cancer you have. Following a cancer diagnosis, many patients get a mix of therapies, including:

Surgery: Curative surgery is to remove cancer that is found in only one part of the body following a cancer diagnosis, according to the American Cancer Society. Debulking surgery removes some but not all of the cancer. It may be done when removing the entire tumor would cause too much damage to nearby organs or tissues.

Chemotherapy: Chemotherapy is drugs to stop the growth of cancer cells following a cancer diagnosis. Chemotherapy either kills cancer cells or stops them from dividing. Chemotherapy may be given orally or by injection or infusion and it may be combined with other treatments, such as surgery or radiation therapy, according to NIH.

Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy uses high-energy x-rays, gamma rays, neutrons, protons, or other sources of radiation to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors, according to NIH. Radiation may come from a machine outside the body or it may come from radioactive material placed inside the body, according to NIH.

Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy stimulates or suppresses the immune system to help the body fight cancer following a cancer diagnosis, according to NIH.

Targeted therapy: Targeted therapies uses drugs or other substances to attack cancer cells but not normal healthy cells, according to NIH. Target therapies may block enzymes, proteins and other molecules involved in the growth and spread of cancer cells.

Hormone therapy: Synthetic hormones may be given to block the growth of certain cancers, such as prostate or breast cancer.

Understand that you have support after a cancer diagnosis

Nonprofits like Lolly’s Locks or Friends Are by Your Side may provide free wigs for cancer patients who have lost their hair due to chemotherapy treatments.  Look Good Feel Better hosts free makeup and beauty workshops for women undergoing cancer treatment.

The American Cancer Society helps you to locate support programs and services in your area following a cancer diagnosis. These services include patient lodging programs if you need to travel away from home to get treatment and rides to treatment if you are too sick to drive yourself.

You may also benefit from a support group where you meet with peers who have experienced or are experiencing the same kind of cancer you are.

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