Cancer Survivor – Part Five of Twelve: I Have Cancer, Now What?

Recently, two people close to me were diagnosed with cancer. Both of them were equally confused about what to do first and asked me for help. For this blog post, I offer you some suggestions I gave to them. If you or your loved ones hear the words, “You have cancer,” here are some ideas of what’s next.

I have written in my previous blogs that I learned I had on two occasions. It felt differently each time. The first time, I did not realize my disease was a cancer until I read about in a magazine while waiting for a radiation treatment. When I realized Hodgkin’s Disease was cancer, I felt fear and shock. Thankfully I had gone through the work up phase and several treatments which were working. I accepted cancer, classically, as ignorance is bliss.

The second time, my mother told me over the phone. I felt resignation and depression at the road ahead. I understood what cancer had already done to my body and realized that not only did I need radiation but also required chemotherapy this time with lower odds of survival. My life was to be uprooted again and rage, fear, and profound sadness overtook me. It hit me much harder.

If you find yourself in this situation you have to try to embrace these feelings immediately. Understand that all of this feels horrible but is normal. There is no answer to “Why me?” You can’t let despair or anger overtake your life, but use those feelings to channel into a treatment plan and your next steps. There are many cancers, life situations, and permutations of the cancer experience and I can only represent my situations at those points in my life. But remaining steadfast is the first step towards survival. Here are some additional ideas.

Find an Advocate – I am lucky that my mother, a chemotherapy IV nurse, advocated for me during my diagnoses and treatments. She knew how to speak to doctors, organized my records, took me to countless appointments, and pushed for changes, comforts, or improvements in my treatment plan. I suggest finding someone who can advocate for you and remain emotionally detached and objective while you progress through treatments or attend appointments. You then have someone who can help you through cancer, take notes or stand up for you when you are too tired.

Get Informed – While going through cancer from 1994 – 1996, it was about the same effort to find buried treasure as it was to find simple information about cancer. Today, the internet makes this easy. A great resource for anyone experiencing cancer can be found at LiveStrong not only has information about many types of cancer but also has several resources for family planning, finances, fertility, survivorship, nutrition, inspiration, and many others. When I find out someone has cancer, I order their free cancer survivor guidebook and have it shipped to them. Surprisingly, I have always heard that the information in the guidebooks is beyond comprehensive. If you have just learned you have cancer, go get a guidebook. It’s that good.

Find a Kindred Spirit – I am proud that cancer is no longer fought behind closed doors in private. Many people proudly flaunt fighting cancer from the survivors at a Komen Race for a Cure to the scores of survivors who walk the first laps at the American Cancer Society’s Relay for Life. The cancer community is an accepting, embracing group who will accept and help you. I have volunteered as a peer counselor helping those in the middle of treatment understand the feelings and sequence of events. It’s too heavy to fight alone.

But, where do I find someone like me? One of the most dynamic cancer survivors is Jonny Imerman. A young survivor of testicular cancer, Jonny would walk the halls in the hospital to commiserate with other cancer patients. His dream was building an organization of angels or survivors to provide 1-on-1 counseling. Today, his group, Imerman Angels, boasts a several-thousand-Angel database ensuring any new cancer fighter can find a similar (gender, interest, cancer-type, etc.) connection. This person then provides 1-on-1 discourse about fighting cancer. Speaking to someone like this can reduce uncertainty and serve as a valuable partner during your treatment. Visit to find yours.

Prioritize – When I found out I had cancer a second time, I was in the process of trying to lose weight. I was working out hard and improving my diet when cancer returned. I then tried to equally prioritize losing weight and fighting cancer. One day, looking into a mirror at my bloated stomach, I realized losing weight could wait. I said to myself, “Let it go. You can do that later.” Liberated, I fought cancer unobstructed and a year later recommitted to weight loss.

My example is simple because of the young age when I fought cancer. But let yourself have a pass on household chores, correspondence, errands, or anything where you can find help. Have your advocate or loved ones help you and don’t feel guilty about letting some stuff go, whatever it is, because you can’t right now. Soon enough, you can take those responsibilities back. Let yourself heal first.

Insurance, Fertility, Finances, Career – These items are very important. I do not have experience addressing any of them while fighting cancer so I am of limited assistance. I suggest revisiting and reading about these areas. You may need help from your advocate for insurance and finances. Fertility is a very personal area but is a topic you should address with your doctor immediately. Career choices (to tell or not to tell) are very unique and personal. There are great articles that can help you navigate what’s best for you.

Get Inspired – There are a lot of powerful videos and songs on the internet to fill your emotional tank. Search them out; feel inspired. Know you are not alone fighting and feeling and hurting. Some of these are tearjerkers and I love watching them. You will too.

Get Active – I do not mean start an exercise program. Getting active means getting some physical activity on your schedule when time and your body allows. For example, just walk 10 yards if you can when you are in the hospital. See how far you can walk down the hall. Bike a couple miles or walk to the mailbox. There is something powerfully defiant in getting up and proving to cancer that it cannot hold you down. You don’t need to run a marathon, just do something small that helps you snub cancer.

Dream Big My favorite piece of advice in 1-on-1 counseling is to develop and chase a massive dream. What is your moon shot? Come up with something so extreme it is almost delusional. Then, do it. When you are fighting cancer, think about this dream; put it on a calendar. Go climb a huge mountain or visit a far away land or call that someone from long ago. But, do it. Make this your goal, not just beating cancer. Your goal is not to just survive, but to embrace life and squeeze something beyond imagination, this dream, from it.

I am sure there are many more pieces of advice that other survivors would give on this topic and I would welcome any other ideas in the comment section.

Until next time, good health and good luck.

Rick Czaplewski
One of life's greatest adventurers.

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