What to Do After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis, According to Women Who Have Been There
Cry, scream, take notes, and don't forget to breathe.
There’s no “right” way to react to hearing the words “you have breast cancer.” Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis might make one woman scream or burst into tears while leaving another feeling speechless and numb. Those four words are life-changing, and we all process this kind of news differently.
But it’s probably safe to bet that anyone facing a breast cancer diagnosis is going to have some questions, whether it’s “What are my treatment options?” or “Why me?”
If you've recently been diagnosed with the disease, you'll get answers to many of those questions from your doctors in the coming days and weeks. But how do you wrap your head around the situation so you can make smart choices for your health? We asked eight breast cancer survivors to share their very best advice on what to do in those first few hours and days after a diagnosis—and how to move forward.
Cry and scream
“Cry, scream, have a short-lived pity party, decide you are a victor and not a victim, find your voice, them pick yourself up from the floor, find a support group and attend, and see a counselor for as long as it takes to help you sort through everything you don’t realize you are feeling.”
—Michelle, 50, Grand Prairie, Texas; diagnosed in 2012
Remember to breathe
“When I was diagnosed, I felt the weight of the world on my chest. It’s such a whirlwind; for me, it was complete shock. I just kept repeating to myself all evening, ‘Just breathe!’ Do what’s best for you and let others help—and just breathe!”
—Laura, 35, Stanley, Virginia; diagnosed in 2010
“I felt like my world was collapsing around me when I was first diagnosed with breast cancer. Everyone tries to help, but receiving advice from so many people actually added to my anxiety levels. I wish I took some time just for myself and let the world slow down. There are a number of [treatment] options available, and you need to calm yourself to understand your possibilities. I wish I knew how to meditate back then, because it would have been useful!”
—Melissa Mae Palmer, 44, Barrington, Illinois; author of My Secrets of Survivorship; diagnosed in 2013
List your questions
“Write questions down before [your next] appointments so you don’t forget. You’ll get hit with a lot, and it can be so overwhelming that you can’t remember what you wanted to discuss.”
—Danni, 32, Salt Lake City, Utah; diagnosed in 2016
“Record every doctor’s appointment until you get your bearings, or take someone with you to appointments to write everything down. You won’t remember anything beyond ‘it’s cancer’ in the first few weeks.”
—Chris, 52, Florence, Kentucky; diagnosed stage 2 in 1994, stage 4 in 2002
“I got a small divided file box and kept copies of everything—every pathology report, referral, doctor’s note. It’s a lot thrown at you all at once, and sometimes you want to be able to go back later and read this stuff. This way, you’ll have it all. It’s a lot of information, but try not to panic. You can get through it!”
—Jennifer, 43, Rhode Island; diagnosed in 2013
To get our top stories delivered to your inbox, sign up for the HEALTH newsletter
Stay in touch
“I strongly suggest creating a page on CaringBridge.org [a nonprofit organization that hosts free websites for people dealing with health issues]. Instead of making phone calls after each appointment, I entered any updates of my condition on my page. It was a lifesaver. Family and friends all agreed it worked great to keep everyone informed without repeating conversations, forgetting to tell someone, or getting things confused any more than they already are.”
—Peggy, 66, Baxter, Iowa; diagnosed in 2014
Focus on the basics
"I had just received my MRI results, which showed that my breast cancer was much more extensive than the physicians initially thought. I sent my friend and mentor, Paul, a text that just said, 'I have breast cancer.' By the time I lifted my finger from the send button, he was already calling me back. In a tone both compassionate and authoritative, he said to me, 'I want to give you five rules. Rule 1: Stay positive. Rule 2: Stay off the internet. Rule 3: Eat a healthy diet. Rule 4: Get exercise, even if it is just walking around the block. Rule 5: Get plenty of sleep.' A cancer diagnosis makes it difficult to absorb information; we suddenly feel the weight of the world on our shoulders and acute fears of mortality. Paul's advice removed some of that weight by giving me a simple framework to continue moving forward during a very stressful moment. He did not add another decision I had to make or another stressor. His advice at its core was to streamline life and to add an element of predictability to balance the chaos by focusing on the basics."
—Melissa Thompson, 34, Stamford, Connecticut; diagnosed in 2015
And whatever you do…
—Vicki, 39, Decatur, Alabama; diagnosed in 2012