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After cancer diagnosis, ask questions, make a plan

  • Story Highlights
  • Expert: No "typical reaction" to a cancer diagnosis
  • Ask questions, seek second opinion after diagnosis
  • When doing Internet research, be sure to find sources you trust
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By Judy Fortin
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ATLANTA, Georgia (CNN) -- Rebbeca Turner wasn't prepared for the breast cancer diagnosis she received nine months ago. "Nobody is prepared," she said. "There is definitely an initial shock ... but you deal with it, get a plan, move forward and try to beat it."

Turner, a legal assistant from Decatur, Georgia, says her life was turned upside down by the news. The 36-year-old mother of two had just 15 days between diagnosis and treatment to make crucial medical decisions and get her life in order at home.

"I felt and saw my tumor grow and triple in size in three weeks, so I didn't have a lot of time," she said.

It's a common scenario for many new cancer patients, according to medical oncologist Ruth O'Reagan of the Winship Cancer Institute at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia. Video Health Minute: Watch more on developing a strategy for dealing with a cancer diagnosis »

There is no typical reaction when patients receive a cancer diagnosis, O'Reagan said. "I think it's all over the map. Some of them are very shocked. Some of them start asking a lot of questions. Some don't ask any questions."

When it comes to a strategy in getting started with cancer treatment, O'Reagan said asking questions is often the best place to begin.

"The first question is usually, 'Is this curable?' And, actually, in a lot of cases it is. Ask questions relating to your diagnosis and prognosis. What kind of testing you're going to get and what kind of treatment is available?" O'Reagan said.

For certain cancers, doctors have standard treatment guidelines. "You can actually map out a distinct plan for your patient in terms of what is going to happen to them," she said.

She also recommends that patients consider getting a second opinion. "I don't think you always have to do that, but if you're not clear in your mind the approach that's going to be taken, absolutely go and get a second opinion."

O'Reagan suggests contacting an academic or teaching hospital about seeing a cancer specialist. At this point, she advises asking about possible clinical trials.

She also tells patients to read up on their diagnosis, but cautions them to be sure they are going to reputable Web sites. "[Patients] will come in with pages and pages of information from the Internet and a lot of it is not relevant to their case. I tell them to be somewhat selective when they go to the Internet."

Turner was warned early on that Web searches can be overwhelming. "You'll get a lot of crazy things," Turner said, "a lot of it is right and a lot of it is wrong. It's too much information."


She limited her research to a few Web sites, including those of the American Cancer Society and the National Cancer Institute.

Turner says many of her early decisions were made "on the fly." Her strategy involves taking one test and one result at a time. "Deal with each situation as it comes up instead of trying to take on the whole body of information," she advised, "because if you don't, you will overwhelm yourself and you will get totally depressed and you won't be able to make good decisions." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

All About CancerAmerican Cancer SocietyNational Cancer Institute

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