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January 31, 2023 • read
What to do if you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is never easy. It can leave you feeling paralyzed — like you don’t know where to turn or what to do next. There’s no right or wrong way to navigate cancer treatment. But if you or a loved one have just been diagnosed, here are some ideas to help give you a well-rounded view.
What’s cancer and how common is it?
Cancer is really a collection of more than 100 different diseases. At its root, however, cancer is a condition characterized by the uncontrollable division of cells. Over time, these cancer cells spread into the surrounding tissue, outcompeting your own cells for resources.
Cancer is the number one cause of death in Canada. Two out of five Canadians receive a cancer diagnosis during their lifetime, and one in four will die from it.
But, while these are grim statistics, overall cancer rates are declining, and survival rates continue to increase. On average, you’re likely to live five years longer today than someone diagnosed with the disease only 10 years ago. Additionally, as an individual, a unique history and genetic profile mean an individual prognosis may differ significantly from the “norm.”
If you or someone close to you has recently received a cancer diagnosis, we can help. Maple’s a telehealth provider that connects you with Canadian-licensed doctors and specialists from your phone, tablet, or computer.
You can speak with an oncology navigator to get a second opinion or gain a deeper understanding of the cancer diagnosis. Oncology navigators are medical doctors who have undergone radiation oncology resident training.
This can give you peace of mind that you’re up to date on the latest research, and help create a treatment plan to fight the disease with confidence.
Myself or a loved one has been diagnosed with cancer. What questions should I ask?
To begin, you’ll want to learn as much as you can from the provider. Here are some questions to start your conversation.
1. What’s the exact diagnosis and how was it determined?
Every cancer diagnosis is unique, but cancers can be divided into a few categories such as:
Cancer diagnoses are rarely ever made on one single test or procedure, so the medical team likely provided a diagnosis from a combination of biopsy, tumour removal, physical exam, or imaging tests. Knowing which type and understanding the cancer test results are the first steps to becoming an informed patient.
2. What’s the stage of cancer?
The cancer stage refers to how advanced the disease is at the time of diagnosis. Other important details include which locations are affected and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.
The stage of cancer influences both treatment plans and chances of recovery. Like most diseases, cancer is more easily treated if caught early. Knowing what stage the cancer’s in can help the doctor set expectations for a treatment roadmap.
3. What are the treatment options and which do you recommend?
The most common types of cancer treatment are surgery, radiation, and systemic therapy (like chemotherapy or targeted medication). The doctor may suggest one or a combination of these treatments.
Since no two diagnoses are alike, the doctor will determine the course of treatment that makes the most sense given one’s personal health factors.
4. Is there a qualification for any clinical trials?
Diagnosing and treating cancer is complex because each patient brings unique factors to the table. Because of this, hospitals and research labs conduct multiple clinical trials yearly to advance therapies for specific types of cancers. These clinical trial therapies provide an opportunity to receive new and promising treatments outside of the regular standard of care a hospital or province might provide.
Where can cancer patients find reputable information?
It’s normal to want to seek out as much information as possible. But, Dr. Google isn’t always accurate. To ensure you’re seeking out information from reputable online sources, you can try:
- Canadian Cancer Society
- MD Anderson
- Princess Margaret Hospital
- Alberta Health Services
- BC Cancer
Should you get a second opinion on the cancer diagnosis?
Knowing when to seek a second opinion isn’t always clear, although, in truth, you don’t need any specific reason to do it. While second opinions aren’t required, they’re not uncommon — you’re in the driver’s seat when it comes to treatment.
Cancer is overwhelming, and it makes sense to want to confirm a diagnosis or seek additional advice. If you’re wrestling with whether to get one, here are some ideas to help.
If you aren’t sure that you or your loved one has received the correct diagnosis, why not get a second opinion from an oncologist? Ensuring that the completed tests were interpreted correctly can help to put your mind at ease.
In the same vein, if you or someone close to you has already gone through treatment and it hasn’t worked, getting a second opinion can help you feel that you’ve explored all the available options.
A second opinion can also help to give you more confidence in your health decisions. The sheer number of cancer treatment options can feel overwhelming. Getting a second opinion may help with choosing the most suitable treatment option. Alternatively, going through additional options with another provider might help you discover a treatment that hadn’t been considered yet.
How to get a second opinion for cancer treatment
Health is personal, and only you should decide when to seek a second opinion about medical treatment. If a loved one has received a diagnosis, they may also want to discuss looking into getting a second opinion with you. Regardless, the doctor shouldn’t have a problem with it, and you don’t need to explain why it’s important to get a second opinion from another oncologist.
In many cases, getting a second opinion can be as simple as asking the current oncologist for a referral. If just the thought of that makes you uncomfortable, however, or if they don’t know where to refer you, there are other options.
You can contact a medical society and ask for a recommendation. You should specifically request an oncologist at a different medical institution from the current one. This ensures being cared for by different attendants and pathologists. If you’re also wondering how to find a new oncologist, a medical society can help with that too.
If time and distance are obstacles, or if you or the person with a cancer diagnosis prefer, you can always get a second opinion on a cancer diagnosis by connecting with an oncology navigator online. This helps tap into as many different knowledge sources as necessary. And, appointments are usually confirmed within 72 hours, so no waiting is required.
How to optimize your health ahead of treatment
Cancer treatment can take a toll on the body. While you can’t do anything about family history, eliminating other risk factors may help to slow the disease’s progression. Doing the following may also help to boost health before treatments begin:
- Quitting smoking and avoiding secondhand smoke
- Using sunscreen when exposed to UV rays
- Avoiding alcohol or drinking in moderation
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet
- Maintaining a healthy weight. Low-impact exercise can help with this, but speak with a doctor first about a safe workout regimen.
How to advocate for yourself or a loved one through treatment
Advocating for yourself or a loved one is often thought of — mistakenly — as being aggressive. Advocacy, however, involves working with the care team as one of its members.
In most cases, the patient and family won’t be working with just one clinician. Cancer care teams often consist of an oncologist, radiologist, and surgeon, as well as other clinicians like a nurse practitioner, physician assistant, clinical pharmacist, and rehabilitation specialists. These specialists know a great deal about treating cancer, but they don’t always know the individual.
Taking an active role in treatment by asking questions and doing research is advocacy. The oncologist and the rest of the team needs help to understand the treatments that are comfortable, and those that aren’t. Participating in this way will help to yield the best results.
Finding the best treatment plan with the doctors
Cancer treatments are constantly evolving, and new experimental trials pop up almost weekly. Although provinces are making strides to bring equity to cancer care across each province, sometimes two doctors might take different treatment approaches to the same cancer. Add in the many factors that can affect cancer treatment, and it’s no wonder treatment options can feel overwhelming.
Finding the best treatment plan can mean exploring several avenues and getting more than one opinion. It’s not unusual to enlist the expertise of different health and medical experts who will want to review the testing that has already been done. In some cases, they may interpret the results a bit differently, or even want to order additional follow-up testing.
Just because a second opinion differs, however, doesn’t mean the first doctor was wrong. Medicine is often a collaborative undertaking. Adding more players to your team may help find a great alternative that hadn’t been considered.
Prioritizing mental health during cancer treatment
Cancer isn’t just physically taxing, it’s often emotionally draining as well. Spending time with family and friends and feeling supported emotionally can make a huge difference.
Sometimes, however, it may not be enough. For additional support, speaking to a therapist online can help. Prioritizing mental health during this difficult time can help with being psychologically fit and concentrating on fighting this disease.
Understanding palliative care
The continuum of cancer care encompasses every stage of treating the disease — from testing and diagnosis to administering palliative care. The idea of palliative care, however, can elicit some negative feelings. But, while it’s for patients with incurable, life-limiting diseases, palliative care isn’t just about dying.
Palliative care aims to improve quality of life by lessening the impact this disease has on one’s life. It’s a multi-faceted field encompassing pain management, emotional, mental, or spiritual support, and even physiotherapy.
Perhaps most importantly, receiving palliative care doesn’t mean ceasing treatment. Many cancer patients continue receiving treatment at the same time as palliative care. Others may leave or receive less palliative care as their disease goes into remission.
How Maple can help with a cancer diagnosis
Getting a cancer diagnosis is a very emotional, confusing time. Feeling like you or your loved one may not be getting the best treatment plan can worsen that fear. If you’re ready to get a second opinion, seeing an oncology navigator online can provide reassurance that all treatment options have been explored. Cancer is scary, but there are specialists out there, like online oncologists, who are ready to help.