Diagnosis Shock and Jumping to Conclusions
Last updated: June 2021
Lung cancer patients and caregivers alike will relate to the trauma of that initial diagnosis. Being told that you have lung cancer is very difficult news to receive, even when a person has been prepared for that possibility. Sitting in the oncologist's office, even probably already knowing that it is some form of cancer (why else would you be getting the news from an oncologist, after all?), hearing those actual words is unlike anything most of us would have otherwise experienced.
Dealing with the initial shock
Each cancer has a name, each cancer has a stage. Sometimes there are modifiers that go along with the diagnosis, like "metastatic" or "inoperable," that stir a little additional fear. Things may slip into a blur as oncologist relates treatment options to patient and caregiver. Words tumble out in a stream, some of them leaping above the surface clearly while others babble underneath, lost in the current. We strike at some, like a bear grabbing for salmon, holding on and rending apart what we can, sometimes making sense of little. It is only later, when the experience is digested, that understanding begins.
One problem that most patients face is that we come into the meeting fully loaded with information that very likely does not apply to our unique circumstance. Just as we are all individual people, every cancer path is specific to the patient. How one person's cancer progresses may be nothing like someone else's, and treatment options are often similarly distinctive. Especially now.
Unlike just a couple of decades ago, or even five short years, we have advantages for many patients in the form of multiple treatment options beyond the three that most people generally think of and often fear. Sadly, it is that fear of conventional treatment through surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation -- the "slash, poison, and burn" approaches vilified by those selling alternative treatments -- that prevents or delays many patients from getting the early, life-saving treatments that they need.
Now, options for treatment include a growing number of drugs targeting specific mutations that drive the growth of tumor cells. There are multiple forms of immunotherapy options already on the market, with more in the pipeline. And newer forms of chemotherapy are both more effective and easier to tolerate than before. None of this makes cancer treatment a walk in the proverbial park, but the process is vastly different from what was available to previous generations.
Finding the right sources of information
Yet, thanks to the Internet, it is all too easy for a freshly diagnosed cancer patient to look at ten-year-old statistical data and conclude her situation is particularly dire. Or for another patient, to read about how horrible and hopeless treatment options are, and he simply decides it is not worth the pain and suffering to seek medical care. Snap decisions, especially those that are particularly uninformed, are not a patient's friend. But they are particularly easy to make, and it is easy to allow them to define a patient's outlook.
For most patients, even with "advanced" cancer, there is time to get a second opinion and have meetings to go over treatment options. Outside of emergency situations, insurance companies need to be dealt with while a medical team makes plans for the solutions with the best potential outcome.
Mananging the fear
Stress and fear, two strong emotions associated with receiving a cancer diagnosis, can impede our judgment. Taking the time to pause before deciding on treatment also allows the patient and caregivers time to come to terms with the reality of living with cancer. Learning about modern medical techniques also allows a patient to enter treatment with a more positive attitude, knowing that options are often exponentially better than they used to be.
And the same can be said for friends and associates who want to be supportive. The news of a friend's diagnosis can be a heavy shock, one which might even lead to well-intentioned efforts to bolster a patient's resolve in the face of hopelessness or, worse, guide the patient to quack therapies that make wild but unsupported claims.
As humans, we are generally predisposed to jump to conclusions with limited information, driven by our gut feelings. But as humans, we also have the ability to think things through before we act. By remembering that our initial feelings are influenced by particularly unnerving, often confusing, and generally frightening news, hopefully, we can stand back and take stock of our situations before acting on them.
Editor's Note: We are extremely saddened to say that on October 21, 2018, Jeffrey Poehlmann passed away. Jeffrey’s advocacy efforts and writing continue to reach many. He will be deeply missed.
Beside manner matters! What has your experience been?