When you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, life feels as if it has stopped. You may feel sad, frightened, numb, or just disorientated and confused. Where do you go from here? At this point, it’s worth remembering that we have reached a turning point in history: more people now survive cancer than die from it, and even those who do die have more time and less suffering. One way or another, your life is going to continue, and the chances are that you will never again feel as overwhelmed as you do at this moment. Even if it’s hard to imagine it now, you are going to find a way forward.

Understanding what it means

The first thing that you need to do, once the initial shock has passed, is to find out what your personal journey is likely to involve. Unless you tell your doctors that you don’t want to know anything, they will be as honest as possible about the medical treatment that lies ahead and how it’s likely to affect you. They can warn you about side effects such as pain, fatigue, or hair loss, and give you advice on how to prepare for them. They can also give you a rough idea of how much you’re likely to need to be in hospital. With some cancers, this is almost all the time, but with others, all that’s needed is regular outpatient treatment. Some people manage to carry on working and fit their other activities around their treatment.

Your doctors will explain the risks involved in your treatment and anything that you can do to reduce those risks, from exercise to healthy eating. In some cases, the risk is much higher for patients who don’t take this kind of responsibility, which means that the risk for a careful, diligent patient isn’t as bad as it seems.

Finding support

One of the most difficult parts of dealing with a cancer diagnosis is telling your loved ones. Often, doctors will offer to let you bring in your family for a group conversation so that everyone can ask questions and get the best available information. There’s no point in trying to hide a cancer diagnosis from those close to you because it will soon become clear that something is wrong, even to children. Rather than having people worrying about something mysterious and potentially feeling that they can’t trust you, it’s best to be open about it as soon as you feel capable of that. They’ll be shocked, as you were, but they’ll soon learn to cope – even children, who often find it easier to understand than adults expect.

Sometimes, family members can’t provide all the emotional support that you need, in which case a support group with people who have been through the same thing can be a good solution. If you don’t feel able to go out, you can find support forums online and even access them from your hospital bed. As well as emotional support, they can provide practical advice on matters such as dealing with your health insurance company.

Mental and physical issues

Mental illness such as anxiety or depression is common in situations like this, so you may want to arrange to see a psychiatrist or counsellor. You shouldn’t feel that you’re weak for needing help like this. Nobody finds it easy to deal with cancer, and getting professional help can be a smart move that helps you develop better coping skills.

When it comes to physical assistance – for instance, if you feel too weak to safely prepare meals and you don’t have a relative who can help – your doctors, insurance company, and support groups can help you find out what services are available in your area. If you have no means of paying for the help that you need, there are charities that can provide assistance.

One thing that many people find particularly difficult to talk about is the way that cancer treatment can affect their sex lives. If you find that you have a loss of libido, pain or fatigue gets in the way, or you feel very unattractive, there are counselling services and medicines available that can help. Accessing them quickly could save your relationship.

Advancements in medicine

When doctors talk to you about your long-term prognosis, they are talking about the treatments that are available at the time of diagnosis. There are huge amounts of money going into cancer research, and this means that patient prospects are always improving. In the future, there will almost certainly be better, less unpleasant therapies available. Even if you’ve been told that there is no cure for your illness, surviving as long as you can means that a cure may be developed before it’s too late.

Oncotarget is a weekly journal that shares the latest news on cancer research. It brings together researchers from different specialties to share their expertise. Reading such publications can help you to feel more hopeful about the future. Even though it takes some years for most breakthrough therapies to become available to patients, other new treatments are already partway through that process. You might even be able to join a clinical trial, testing a new therapy. This carries some risk, but it could be your best hope, and even if it didn’t work out, you would be helping other cancer patients.

Getting back to normal

If you are finally told that your cancer has gone, you may feel both relief and trepidation at the prospect of getting back to a normal life. It’s important to recognize that your treatment could leave you with long-term problems such as fatigue or sleeping problems, so you shouldn’t expect yourself to be able to do everything that other people can do just as easily. Don’t let anyone pressure you into getting back to all your old responsibilities unless you feel ready to do so.

With most cancers, there is always a risk of recurrence. This is something that you will have to live with. It can be very scary at first, but for most people, it gets easier over time.

Your life is unlikely to ever be quite the same as it was, but there are positive reasons for that. You’ll be older and wiser and have a better idea of how tough you really are. Now is the time to focus on building an even better future.