“Oh, Ruth, I think this is a cancer.”

These were the words uttered by Dr. Hiram Cody, a breast cancer surgeon, after an initial physical examination of the wife of a fellow physician, Dr. Peter Bach. And with that simple statement, Dr. Bach wrote, “Down into the tunnel Ruth and I stumbled, into the strange, dehumanizing, aching, opaque and misunderstood world of cancer doctors and cancer care.”

If the above captures the initial reaction of a trained physician, imagine what it is like for someone who has minimum knowledge or experience—which is, obviously, the overwhelming majority of people.

I recall having a similar experience when I went with a close friend to an appointment with an oncologist a week after he’d been informed that his Hodgkins lymphoma, which had been in remission for four years, had returned. The oncologist was kind, but as soon as he started talking about the cancer and the treatment options, I began to feel as if I were in a dream.

One of my purposes in being there was to take notes so that my friend would have some record to look at as he took a day or two to decide on a course of action. These options turned out to be much more complex than I’d ever imagined they could be, both in terms of their intensity (“aggressiveness”) and their sequence. And each was associated with different statistics (“survivability”).

The crisis that begins with a terminal or potentially terminal diagnosis like cancer marks the first step down a long and winding road. It is strange, opaque, and confusing, not because oncologists and surgeons want it to be that way, but simply because it is that way.

Generations ago, there were few decisions to be made following such a diagnosis, and patients generally did not survive very long. Today, thanks to medical advances, there are a great many choices and, consequently, a great many decisions that must be made. And the great majority of patients must make these decisions despite their own limited knowledge.

Often, their situation becomes even more complicated (and confusing) when several different doctors (none of whom communicate with one another) enter the picture. Under such circumstances, whose advice do you take? The doctor you personally like the best? The doctor who works at the most prestigious medical center? The last doctor you talk to?

A deep sense of vulnerability is what we face—and must eventually learn to live with—when someone we love receives a diagnosis of cancer. In the case of breast cancer, the diagnosis is no longer as dire as it was a generation o two ago. Still, while roughly 70% of such cases can be made to go into remission, another 30% will at some point metastasize.

The long and winding road that is cancer, in other words, does not simply come to an end, even though it may become less threatening as a result of treatment. That said, interviews with families who have had to negotiate this prolonged crisis have yielded some concrete suggestions about things to do as soon as possible after you take your first steps down this road. They include:

  • Expect the unexpected: Although anxiety is the most typical first response to learning that we or a loved one has cancer, some people report feeling angry or resentful. Such reactions are normal. You may indeed experience anxiety, but don’t be surprised if you also experience other emotions.
  • Build a support team: Do this as soon as possible. The longer you wait, the more isolated (and confused) you will become. Identify those friends, family members, colleagues, and clergy who you believe you can count on for support, for concrete help, or both. Let them know about your diagnosis and keep them informed as treatment progresses.
  • Organize your resources: See if there are a couple of people who would be willing to serve as “point persons” in the months ahead. These would be people whom you can count on to attend doctors’ meetings with you (and take notes), do research for you (for example about different treatment options, their prognoses and side effects), and lend a helping hand (for example, babysitting for a mother who must undergo chemotherapy.
  • Begin to get legal and financial issues in order: If you have no will, have one made up. Designate a health care proxy. Organize your expenses so loved ones can understand them and assist as needed in paying them. And so on.
  • Make decisions as a team. Of the many different ways to make decisions about treatment, many people have said that a team approach is best. Although the patient, obviously, has the final word, the team should include one physician who will coordinate the overall treatment plan, along with a small circle of trusted family and friends. For the team approach to work, communication is essential. Each person on the team should know as much as possible about each alternative that is considered. The team approach has the advantage of helping clear the air of the confusion that is often generated by dealing with multiple doctors.


Joseph Nowinski 2011



Joseph Nowinski

Joseph Nowinski, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist with more than twenty years of experience working with individuals and families. He is the co-author of “Saying Goodbye: How Families Can Find Renewal Through Loss” (Penguin/2011), a book that helps families cope with a terminal illness and extended caregiving. Dr. Nowinski and his colleague, Barbara Okun, Ph.D., present a new five-stage model of grief that reflects the contemporary realities of death and dying. Dr. Nowinski is the Supervising Psychologist at UConn Health Center.

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