Q. What is cancer?
A. Cancer develops when abnormal cells begin to grow out of control. It usually forms as a tumor, although cancers such as leukemia that involve the blood do not form tumors - they circulate through other tissues.
Q. Who gets cancer?
A. Nearly half of American men and more than a third of American women will have some type of cancer in their life; three-quarters of them will be diagnosed after age 55, although cancer can affect anyone at any age.
Q. What did I do wrong?
A. It is almost never possible to determine the exact cause of cancer in any individual case. Cancer is not your fault. It isn't a punishment for past actions, and it's more important to focus on taking care of yourself now than to look for ways you could have prevented the disease.
Q. Is cancer always fatal?
A. More than half the people who are diagnosed with cancer today are cured. Cancer is not a death sentence. Most cancers can be treated, especially when they're caught early. Many people recover completely, while others live for years with their cancer well controlled.
Q. How do I tell people I have cancer?
A. Cancer affects your entire family and your friends. It's important that you keep your family informed of how you feel, both physically and emotionally, so they can understand the challenges you're facing. Then they can be supportive and help you make informed decisions.
It's up to you to decide whether to discuss your diagnosis with your friends, but honesty is usually the best policy. Keeping it a secret can be stressful for you, and they'll find out eventually anyway. When they do, they may be hurt that you didn't tell them. Before you talk to them though, think about why you're telling them and what you expect of them. Be prepared to tell them how they can help you - and don't be reluctant to accept their help when you need it.
If you have young children, give them simple but honest information they can understand. Let them ask questions, but don't try to protect them. Children need accurate information to help them avoid drawing their own, frightening conclusions. They can and do learn to cope with cancer and its treatments.
Q. What will my treatment involve?
A. Your treatment choices will depend on the type of cancer you have, the stage it is in and your age, overall health status and personal preferences. Different cancers respond to different treatments, and not all types of treatment will be effective for you. Discuss your options with your doctor, and don't be afraid to ask questions. You have every right to know which treatments are most likely to help you and what side effects may accompany them.
Q. How will my treatment be planned?
A. Most cancers don't grow very quickly, so you'll have time to gather information, talk with specialists and decide which treatment options are best. Your doctor will use a range of tests, which may include biopsies, imaging and laboratory tests, to select options and make recommendations. It's very important that you have a good relationship with your doctor. You should feel free to ask questions and be involved in planning the course of your treatment.
Q. What should I ask my doctor?
A. You should ask your doctor or the nurses on your treatment team about anything you don't understand or want more information on. The types of questions you have may include:
- What is the stage of my cancer?
- What is the goal for my treatment, cure or control?
- What are the pros and cons of this treatment?
- Are there other treatment options?
- What if I miss a treatment?
- How will you decide if the treatment is working?
- What symptoms or problems should I report right away?
- What drugs will I take? What are they for?
Q. What is staging?
A. Staging is finding out how far the cancer has spread, which is important in determining which treatment options are best. The TNM staging system is the one most commonly used. It tells the size of the tumor and whether cancer has spread to nearby tissue and organs (T), how far the cancer has spread to lymph nodes (N), and whether the cancer has metastasized, or spread, to other organs (M).
Q. How do I cope with cancer?
A. You will probably need a little time to adjust and to come to terms with your diagnosis and treatment options. That is normal, and you may have feelings such as anger, shock, disbelief and fear during this period.
Everyone copes with cancer differently and you will discover what works for you. Some strategies that may help include:
- Build your knowledge base. Learning as much as possible about your diagnosis and treatment can help give you a sense of control over what happens.
- Express your feelings. This is not the time to hide what you're feeling. It is more difficult to express powerful emotions than to hide them, but you may find it easier to stay positive if you can expose your emotions. You may choose to talk to friends or family, start a journal, or paint or draw. There are many ways to share what you feel. Find one that works for you.
- Take care of yourself. Do something you enjoy every day, whether it's cooking a favorite meal, watching a movie, listening to music, meditating or enjoying the company of uplifting friends.
- Exercise. If you feel up to it and your doctor approves, get some mild exercise. Walk, swim, do yoga or just stretch. Exercise can help you feel better about your body.
- Reach out. There will be times when you're not feeling strong enough to handle this by yourself. Reach out to your friends and family so you can remember you're not on this journey alone.
- Stay positive. An optimistic outlook can affect your overall quality of life as you progress through cancer and treatments. This doesn't mean you'll never feel sad or stressed, but that you'll work through those feelings as they occur rather than being overwhelmed by them.