Patient Stories: Patients Tell How They Handled a New Cancer Diagnosis

A cancer diagnosis often comes with an overwhelming flood of emotions ranging from fear and panic to guilt and anger. The impact of hearing the words, “You have cancer,” varies from person to person. There is no right or wrong way to respond.

Some people lean on their support system, which might comprise their family, friends, or religious community. Others choose to keep the news of their cancer hidden. That’s how educator Lynette Medley dealt with her breast cancer diagnosis. At the time, she was 45 years old, her children were beginning college, and her tumultuous marriage had recently ended. 

When Medley learned she had breast cancer, her immediate feelings were mainly shock and disbelief. Her main thoughts were about her family. “I didn’t want to burden them with the news,” she says. “My children were beginning to branch out. My family is very close. Everything that happens to one of us happens to all of us, and I didn’t want them to worry.”

During her treatment, which included surgery and radiation, Medley only confided in the person she was dating and another friend. She says it was sometimes freeing not to rely on others during her decision-making process. “I used to think that I was the only one who handled their diagnosis this way, but I have learned many other people do as well.”

It’s been 2 years since her diagnosis, and Medley has no regrets about how she handled it. “My journey was in secrecy and silence, but during that time, I gained a strength I didn’t know I had.”

Basil Gilliam also learned about his inner strength from cancer. He was 48 years old when he went to the dentist complaining of a few loose teeth. An x-ray revealed a mass between his nose and upper lip. A biopsy showed it was stage IV head and neck cancer.

“When I heard that diagnosis, the fear and uncertainty were overwhelming,” he says. “I was in complete disbelief. I just couldn’t imagine that I was that sick.”  He leaned on his wife, who he affectionately refers to as his great mate, for support.

Gilliam went to work researching his cancer and its treatment online. The news was not encouraging. “The survival rates are not high, especially for stage IV.” Doctors performed a grueling 12-hour surgery to remove his palate. Chemotherapy and radiation followed. His recovery was excruciating. “You never know how much you’ll have to dig deep to get through things like this,” he says. “I learned I’m a survivor. I’m a fighter.”

Melvina Brown sought peace after receiving her early stage breast cancer diagnosis. Her immediate reactions were fear, disbelief, uncertainty, and doubt. “Then my faith kicked in," she says. “I prayed and prayed. I asked God for the peace to go through this.”

The 68-year-old found peace when she went for a second opinion—she and the surgical oncologist clicked. “A wave of peace came over me,” she recalls. Two surgeries and 4 weeks of radiation followed.

Brown attributes her unwavering support system and her faith for getting her through the rough times. “I know God answers prayers,” she says. “My faith is stronger, and I know God can do anything but fail.”

There are many different ways one can handle a cancer diagnosis, and it's important that you try to find the one that works best for you. Depending on your personality and life experiences, you can call on any number of resources -- including your own strength -- to help you get through this challenging time.

To learn about the resources available to you while coping with a cancer diagnosis, read: How to Stop Cancer From Hurting You Psychologically.

 

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