When you receive a breast cancer diagnosis, it’s overwhelming, naturally. You’ll likely have at least a million thoughts flying through your mind at record speed.
I understand, and I’m on this journey, too. Because I’m fighting my own high risk for breast cancer diagnosis, I want to tell you that it’s OK. Scary? Absolutely. Still very OK.
Take a moment to breathe (or maybe a few moments for many big, slow deep breaths) and listen to your body and mind. Is it telling you to take some time for yourself to digest the news? Honor that desire or any other healthy coping mechanism that feels right at this time.
Unfortunately, there’s no map or written plan that can tell you exactly how to get through this next part of your life — it’s entirely uncharted territory for you. Still, you’re not at a disadvantage.
Besides your loved ones to lean on, there’s a plethora of information and resources that can guide your steps along the way and explain a few key moves to make after you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
In the second-to-last blog post of this breast cancer awareness series, I shared breast cancer stories that highlighted other unique journeys. Now, let’s talk about how you can get started on yours once you’ve received a breast cancer diagnosis.
4 Key Steps to Take Control After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
Step 1: Prioritize mental and physical health
Learning about and navigating your breast cancer diagnosis is overwhelming and may spur a myriad of complex feelings to face and cope with. I truly believe mental and physical health go hand-in-hand, and it’s important now more than ever to maintain them as much as you can.
To cope with the range of emotions you’ll experience each day, I strongly suggest you:
🌱 Visit a therapist. I recommend going as often as once a week or at least once a month, but choose a frequency that best helps you process your feelings. While you should lean on your circle of influence, it’s also important to have an objective person in your corner who can provide sound advice and help you work through your diagnosis and treatment plan.
🌱 Encourage your partner to see a therapist, too. Being a caregiver is tough and can be an isolating experience. Therapy can provide helpful coping tools needed for their journey of supporting a loved one with cancer.
🌱 Find a community. Ask your doctor about any support groups for people with the same or similar cancer that you or your partner can join. These kinds of support groups that help you feel less alone in your experience are often invaluable.
🌱 Get enough rest. Don’t underestimate the importance of sleep — it significantly improves your health, mood and coping abilities, weight control, memory and attention, and so much more.
🌱 Participate in regular physical activity. Exercise during and after cancer treatment can help reduce fatigue, weight gain, and loss of strength. And define “exercise” however you’d like! The key is to develop a fitness routine that’s safe for you, whether that means you get your heart pumping with aerobics or strength training, taking daily walks, doing short bursts of exercises instead of full sets, or simply doing more stand-up activities at home.
🌱 Treat your body to healthy foods. A healthy diet is a critical aspect of managing some cancer side effects and improving your health. Doctors often advise eating foods high in fiber and nutrients, fruits and vegetables, plus healthy fats. Although you can always speak with yours or even a nutritionist to get individualized recommendations.
One last thing: Find your joy.
So much about cancer is heavy and emotional, and it can be easy to forget about feeding your identity outside of it. When and if you can, enjoy that hobby you love, hang out with that friend who just gets you, get lost in whimsical books and movies or discover a new interest. All because you’re still you.
Step 2: Get (and stay) informed about your body
“You have cancer,” means a lot of things, as you’ll soon realize. Once you’ve been diagnosed, it’s time to understand the disease so you know how to beat it.
It’s important to know that your healthcare provider team is committed to giving you the care you need to feel your best. Still, keep this in mind: This life-changing experience not only requires a committed team, but a proactive approach by you and/or your caregiver(s) every step of the way is a must for an engaged relationship with your healthcare team on your treatment path.
Because there are so many stages of cancer and modalities within the disease plus options to treat it, don’t hesitate to get the opinions you need to make informed decisions that support your lifestyle and goals.
Here are a few ways you can get informed about your body after a cancer diagnosis:
- Gather all the facts by learning the exact diagnosis, type, stage, size, location of your cancer and more.
- Get a second opinion. (Sometimes, even a third is necessary.)
- Arrive at appointments prepared with pre-written questions and concerns.
- Familiarize yourself with your insurance policy and coverages. (Check-in on copays, deductibles and all other costs you may have to pay.)
- Ask about the risks and benefits of any given or recommended treatment, as well as the side effects.
- If you’re interested, ask if any clinical trials are right for you.
- Watch out for biased resources — any cancer research that informs your treatment plan should be from credible institutions, such as respected universities or organizations like the National Cancer Institute or the American Cancer Society.
- Don’t hesitate to ask your physicians to supply evidence for their recommendations.
Information overload is very real after a cancer diagnosis, so always vet your sources before trusting the advice.
Finally, remember you’re in control. If one or more of your doctors won’t provide the clarity you need to understand your diagnosis, get help to replace them. 🔑 After all, your life’s on the line.
Step 3: Notify the people that need to know
When to share this enormous life update with the world is a deeply individual choice (it took me months before I could), yet there are some people you should clue in to how much your life is about to change — particularly those who it’ll impact.
Once you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, it’s important to let your primary care doctor know plus any specialist(s) you work with. This is key in the early stages of your treatment because it saves you from re-explaining your diagnosis or your treatment plan along the way.
It’s a good idea to also share this news with your closest family members and friends. Getting through this disease is challenging and laborious, so having them to lean on can make the journey that much better. Remember you can’t accomplish everything alone, plus it’s likely they’d jump at the chance to support you.
💡 Pro-tip: Share this news with your closest family members and friends after you’ve charted your plan or at least discussed any treatment options with your doctor. This way, you can provide as much information when answering questions!
Besides loved ones and medical providers, you’ll need to talk with superiors and affected colleagues at work to ensure access to a smooth transition of work while you are out. How much you share with your boss is up to you, but you should first speak to your HR team — they’ll provide you with guidance regarding when to use PTO, FMLA, special leave or even disability benefits.
Step 4: Get involved
In my third blog post of this series, I shared stories about women who’ve been impacted by breast cancer and how they’ve navigated their journeys.
One common thread between us? Giving back to the breast cancer community and spreading awareness.
I’ll admit, it wasn’t an endeavor I was ready for right away. After I found out exactly how high my risk was of getting breast cancer, I took some time for myself and my family to really take in what the news meant for me and our lives. After a few months, when I was ready, I slowly got to work.
Although I’d long been an advocate of breast cancer awareness, this new personal and intimate relationship I now have with it intensified my desire to use my knowledge and access to help others. (This blog series is one way I’ve done that!)
If spreading awareness is right for you — whether you volunteer with nonprofits and organizations or coordinate events or support groups — get involved at a level you’re comfortable with. Not only does community action highlight that you can have a say in decisions made about cancer research, but supporting other survivors or families of those who’ve passed is a great way to honor their journeys and champion more advancements.
At the same time that I offer this advice, I also urge you to make the right choices for your lifestyle and treatment path. The right way to get involved for you may be to cheerlead from the sidelines, donate to research studies or impacted family funds, or even use available breast cancer resources to support your own journey — all of that is more than OK.
When we show up however we can to stand in this fight together, we can provide a voice to the voiceless and advocate for the whole community.
Don’t Give Up Hope
It may not feel like it right away, but breast cancer isn’t necessarily a death sentence.
After your breast cancer diagnosis, you’ll have to process more feelings than you can imagine, and it’s likely you’ll have to fight off a lot of negative ones. Feel empowered that knowledge is power — because the more you know, the easier it is to make informed decisions about your health.
- Thanks to early detection (like mammography!) and treatment improvements, the number of women who have died of breast cancer has decreased by 41% from 1989 to 2018. As a result, more than 403,000 breast cancer deaths were prevented during that period.
- The average 5-year survival rate for women with non-metastatic invasive breast cancer is 90%.
- The average 10-year survival rate for women with non-metastatic invasive breast cancer is 84%.
- If the invasive breast cancer is only located in the breast, the 5-year survival rate is 99%.
- Since 2007, the number of women 50 and over who’ve died of breast cancer has continued to decrease.
See? It’s not all downhill from here! Not only that, more and more improvements are on the way, especially for metastatic breast cancer.
I wish you all the best on your cancer journey, and may you have more hopeful days than sour ones. It’s membership of a club no one wants, but it’s one of the most supportive ones, and I aim to ensure no one gets left behind.
If you’re not subscribed to my newsletter, you missed the heads up about my media appearances all throughout the month of October, where I’ve talked about my breast cancer diagnosis and life-saving mammograms. 👉 Check out the interviews.
🔑 Do you or someone you know need help scheduling one? Use the second blog post of this series to take action now. It highlights local and national resources to help you find mammograms for free or at reduced rates!
With this blog post, I conclude my breast cancer awareness blog post series. Next month, I’m returning to sharing broader women’s health content — but if you need breast cancer support or resources, I’m an email away.
In the meantime, you can find me spreading more awareness as I round out my recovery from a double mastectomy. Thank you so much for supporting me along the way! Sharing my story as well as others has been a personal and important part of my journey, and I’m grateful for the platform I have to do so.
Meet Dr. Savita Ginde
Dr. Savita Ginde is an advocate and thought leader for reproductive health and served as Chief Medical Officer of Planned Parenthood of the Rocky Mountains for over 13 years. And, until very recently, she served as the Chief Healthcare Officer for STRIDE Community Health Center where she oversaw all of STRIDE’s healthcare services and led their COVID-19 vaccination efforts.