5 First Steps To Take After An Early-Breast-Cancer Diagnosis

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Early Breast-Cancer Diagnosis? Do This NextSDI Productions - Getty Images

Receiving an early-breast-cancer diagnosis can feel like a shock to your system, prompting a wave of emotions that can range from fear to sadness, and everything in between. While you’re trying to get your wits about you, know that what to do next is at the ready for you. Here we lay out steps to take toward survivorship.

Early breast cancer is when the cancer has not spread past the breast and the axillary lymph nodes. It is also considered ductal carcinoma in situ (when cells lining the milk ducts become cancerous) and stage 1 (small local tumor) through 3a cancer (cancer in nearby lymph nodes).

1. Take A Breath And Center Yourself

“It takes time to process the information when you hear you have breast cancer,” says Susan Brown, MS, RN, the senior director of health information and publications at the Susan G. Komen Foundation in Dallas. “You may have to hear the diagnosis more than once. You may want to ask the doctor to name and write down what they have found so far. You also may have to learn a new vocabulary, so take a breath.”

Be gentle with yourself, and remember that an early-breast-cancer diagnosis is not a death sentence. “The five-year survival rate for stage 1 breast cancer is 100 percent,” says Shari Goldfarb, MD, an oncologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center in New York City. “The earlier you diagnose and treat, the better your outcome, and most women with stage 1 breast cancer are going to be cured of their cancer.”

2. Educate Yourself With Reputable Sources

Both experts we spoke to agreed that knowledge is power—just be careful where you’re getting it. For example, the first thing many women do is research breast cancer on the internet, but there’s a right and a wrong way to do that. “Don’t just go to Dr. Google, because there is a lot of misinformation out there,” Brown says. “Take time to gather reliable information.” One good rule of thumb is to look for reputable sources with .org or .gov at the end of the site’s web address, as these sources are usually most up-to-date, Dr. Goldfarb says.

3. Keep A Journal Or Notebook For Your Thoughts And Questions

Even before your first visit with an oncologist or a breast-cancer surgeon, consider writing down questions, such as:

  • What type of cancer do I have?

  • What stage is it in?

  • What is my prognosis?

  • What does treatment entail?

  • What does it mean for my life?

Keep the journal going between doctor’s visits, especially if you begin experiencing side effects from medications and other forms of treatment. “We can often relieve many of these symptoms, so the sooner you tell your doctor what you’re experiencing, the better,” Dr. Goldfarb says. Hot flashes, diarrhea, constipation, and nausea are all common side effects of cancer treatment, and documenting your symptoms can help motivate you to reach out to your doctor if you’re experiencing any of them. “For example, if you get a mouth sore two days after chemotherapy, we can prescribe something to relieve it before you come back for your next visit, so you don’t have to suffer through it for another two weeks,” she says. “Don’t let things fester.”

4. Establish A Support System

“There used to be a stigma with cancer, but not anymore,” Dr. Goldfarb says. “There is nothing you did to get it. You were simply unlucky, and you’re going to need good support going through this.” Take some time to consider who will be your support system, whether that includes your partner, other family members, friends, or colleagues—or all of the above.

Too many women forgo telling their boss and coworkers of their diagnosis, but Dr. Goldfarb says it’s important to share the news with them, too, because you may find yourself calling in sick more, or simply not feeling well at work. ”If people understand what is going on, they are more helpful and supportive,” she says.

And even if your squad consists of just one or two people, having an advocate who can help you gather information and draft questions can take some of the load off you. “Perhaps they can attend appointments with you as a second set of ears, to take notes or ask questions that you may forget to ask,” Brown says.

Building a support system also can include connecting with others who have been through a similar experience. “This can be through a support group that’s online or in person,” Brown says. “These groups share information and encourage members to advocate for themselves.” The Susan G. Komen Foundation, for example, has two Facebook groups where patients, friends, and family can find support and friendship and share information.

Just remember to ask your doctor about anything you read or hear that concerns you, rather than take another person’s advice as fact. Brown likens this to announcing you’re pregnant, then hearing nothing but horrible labor and delivery stories. “If someone gives you something to think about, clear it up with your doctor right away so you don’t worry unnecessarily,” Brown says. “Another person may not even have the same type of cancer as you, or maybe they had it years ago, but since treatment is always changing, what they say may have no bearing on you.”

5. Consider Getting A Second Opinion

An early-breast-cancer diagnosis is a physical and emotional diagnosis, and you must feel comfortable with the care you’re getting, says Dr. Goldfarb. Even if the diagnosis and treatment plans end up aligning, many patients find a second opinion goes a long way toward helping them make peace with their diagnosis. “The first person you meet is not always the right fit,” Dr. Goldfarb says. “This is an important, serious diagnosis, but it’s also important to feel like you’re getting good care. If it’s not a fit with the first person, a second opinion can give you peace of mind.” Brown adds that asking for another expert’s opinion may not be necessary if you have a common type of breast cancer, but occasionally a person may have an unusual type of breast cancer, something that a pathologist doesn’t see very often.

Whatever the reason—even if it’s just that you’ll feel better if another doctor looks at your test results—the doctor or hospital where your biopsy was done can help you find another source. “Sometimes even within the same facility, you might find a different doctor,” Dr. Goldfarb says. “I see fewer patients as an oncologist, but I see them much more frequently, which is why it’s so important to find someone you connect with, keeping in mind that this is going to be a long-term relationship.”

She suggests looking for someone who approaches breast cancer holistically: “A lot of emotions are involved. Even though early-stage breast cancer is likely to be cured, for you, it’s a traumatic experience.”


It’s impossible to control an early breast-cancer diagnosis and everything that comes with it, so try focusing on the things you can control. “Reading about it and talking about it are important,” Dr. Goldfarb says—because they will help remind you that most women diagnosed with early-stage breast cancer become survivors. “This is why regular mammograms and self-exams are important—they lead to earlier diagnoses.”

The key, she says, is to stay positive and surround yourself with positive people. “It’s hard and it hits you at different points, but I am always amazed at how optimistic people can be even in difficult situations,” says Dr. Goldfarb. “It will help you get through the journey.”

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