A Letter to a Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient — For What It’s Worth

A friend of mine just got hit with “The Ominous Diagnosis”. And I couldn’t resist giving some extra advice (I know, shocking, right?)

The following is an expanded version of the personal advice I gave him, based on what I learned from my own bout of breast cancer.

Take from it what you will. It may not sound exactly like the advice you’ve heard from others. icon smile A Letter to a Newly Diagnosed Cancer Patient   For What Its Worth

My Dear Friend…

I’m so sorry you have cancer. You deserve better.

Lots of people are going to give you advice and sympathy for the next few days. Most will never understand what you’re going through, but they will try to make you feel better. You’ll hear lots of things like “go get ‘em Champ!” and “I’ll be praying for you” and “Never give up!”.

But most people won’t tell you what to expect, because they just don’t know.

I’m here to tell you what the next few days, weeks, months, and years will be like. And I promise not to lie to you.

First things first. You’re about to go through some of the suckiest experiences of your life.

There are not enough words to describe how much this truly sucks.

  • It sucks that this happens.
  • It sucks that it happens to nice people.
  • And it really sucks that it is happening to you.

Life isn’t fair. No honest person has ever told you life was fair. That you got cancer isn’t fair either. But there it is.

And it isn’t anyone’s fault.

Let’s get that part out of the way right now, shall we?

Everyone tries to blame something or someone for cancer. Because it’s really hard to stay mad at something that is growing inside of you. It’s easier to be mad at environmental factors or at yourself for not living “right”.

But it doesn’t really matter what caused or triggered it, does it? Doesn’t change a damn thing and you can’t turn back time and live differently. You can’t go turn off the industrial smokestacks that are bellowing out tons of toxins into our air everyday, and you can’t go back 15 years ago and never eat a cheeseburger either.

Besides, new research seems to indicate that viral infections are the cause. So, remember that really bad flu virus you had that winter? Yeah, that was probably it. Or not. Who knows?

So, get over it, and stop blaming yourself or the world for it. Focus on what’s important right now. The next few weeks and months are the only important things you need to be concerned with.

Here’s what you can expect in the immediate future, so that when it happens, you won’t be shocked.

Stages of Cancer Treatment (From the patient’s perspective)

First is the Education stage. This is the part where everything you could possibly read about cancer will be all you think about. You’re going to try and learn everything you can in hopes of conquering it with your willpower and brains alone.

That’s good. That’s healthy. Knowledge is good. Go for it and get it out of your system.

And then, listen to my first piece of advice…

1. Trust your medical team. They know what they are doing.

Your doctors and nurses have your best interest at heart. They have years of medical experience dealing with this disease, and they want you to get better. They want you to live. If for no other reason, they want you to live because it makes them look good.

So, when they tell you which treatments are advised for your medical condition, do your research if you must. Learn whatever makes you more comfortable with the wisdom of your doctors. Then trust them and do what they think is best for you.

Which brings me to #2:

2. Be patient with the “armchair physicians”

They will attack you in droves now, thrusting out their lotions, potions, and magic drinks that claim to be the “secret cancer cure” no one knows about.

It will be a challenge for you when 100 people approach you with 100 completely different “cures”. They mean well, even though they are being less than helpful.

Try to remember that they believe in their nonsense, and because they believe it, they are trying to be your healer. They think they are going to save your life by telling you all this.

They care about you, but they are dangerous. Thousands upon thousands of people die each year because they fear doctors so much they are willing to forgo actual tested treatments in favour of untested root chewing.

Learn to nod gently and say “Thank you. I’ll look into it”.

3. Be patient with your friends and family when they tell you “let me know if you need anything”, but then disappear completely.

It isn’t easy for them to know what to do for you. They feel helpless. You remind them of their own mortality, and it scares them.

So, understand that if you want help, you have to sacrifice your pride and actually ASK for it. Lean on them whenever possible. Call them and ask them to help you wish housework, groceries, dinner, etc. Give them some busy work. It’s good for you and good for them too.

Let yourself rely on your family and friends. You don’t need to be tough all the time. Rest your head on the shoulders of your family who has always loved you, no matter what. They need to be there for you. Let them.

Do it because if worst comes to worst, this is their one chance to make great memories with you. If you die and you didn’t let them help you, they will feel guilty the rest of their lives.

So, don’t be a jerk. Give them stuff to do.

4. You are going to die, but not today

I don’t mean to be morbid here, but you need to remember that just because you have cancer doesn’t mean you know how you’re going to die. You could still get hit by a bus tomorrow or fall in the shower and split your head open on the faucet.

If you remember this, and remind yourself of it often, you will find that you will fear death less and enjoy life more.

Enjoy the moments. Take extra time to do the things you always meant to do “someday”, and do them now. None of us have a clue when our expiry date is, but we behave as if we’re immortal, always procrastinating, always putting off the fun stuff until “later”. Pretend you are dying tonight and do TODAY what you would do if this was your last day on earth. Trust me. Your life will be a lot more interesting!

5. You aren’t helpless to anything.

Although you cannot control what happens TO you, you absolutely can control how you react to it. That is 100% yours. So, do whatever you need to do to kick cancer’s ass. Do your treatments. Take your meds. Take lots of naps. Give your body a chance to fix itself.

Which brings me to #6

6. Laugh.

  • Laugh at yourself.
  • Laugh at the absurdity of the situation.
  • Laugh at bad jokes.
  • Laugh during comedy sitcoms.
  • Laugh at stupid YouTube videos.
  • Laugh as often and as loudly as you can.

It will keep you brave.

Once your treatments are all finished, and you can start growing your hair back, and more importantly, start living your life again, there are some things you need to know.

The next few years will be weird for you.

Every headache will make you think “Oh God, it’s metastasized to my brain!!!” If your back hurts, you won’t be able to stop yourself from worrying that it has moved to your bones. It’s scary as hell, because just when you think it’s over…it isn’t.

Try not to worry too much about it. Get back to your life. Enjoy whatever life you’ve got left. Show up for every doctor’s appointment and do your follow up exams.

But don’t stress too much about whether or not it will be coming back again.

If it does, worry about it then and start the whole treatment process again.

But if it doesn’t, make sure you celebrate each day you have on this earth, ok?

Because from the first moment you were diagnosed with cancer, you felt like you were handed a death sentence. And because you were brave enough to go through all those treatments, you survived it, didn’t you?

That means that every single day you live past your original expiration date is an amazing blessing. You need to enjoy it.

That means you need to LIVE with as much joy and fierce determination to survive as you possibly can.

I wish you the best, my friend.


PS: Can you believe it has been almost five years since I was told I had less than a year to live? I love life more now than I ever did before, and I hope the same for you too!

16 Comments so far »

  1. Rick Butts said on:

    June 14, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    This is excellent and should be required reading for anyone who just gets the word.

    Perhaps a nice video — with some nice music and a simple PPT and you just read this thing — so helpful.

    Yeah, I’ve had nearly everyone on Planet Rick state the “I’m here for you for anything you need — you just let me know” then promptly disappear.

    It’s like now I’m contagious. I live in an apartment building and probably have 20 friends here who know what’s up with me — and in 3 weeks — just one person has txt me to ask if they could come by.

    But then, I’m 100% guilty of not asking for help — so what you said really made sense.

    Thanks so much for this — it’s full of great and useful insights.

  2. Jodi Vaughan said on:

    June 30, 2011 at 10:55 pm

    I’ve been reading your site and it’s wonderful. You bit the nail on the head! I want to surround myself with people like you!!!

  3. Liz Belilovskaya said on:

    July 14, 2011 at 10:59 am

    Hi Sylvie,

    My name is Liz and I came across your blog a while ago. I was amazed by your positive attitude and strength throughout your journey — I had a hard time staying positive when I got the bad news in several members of my family. Your blog was an inspiration, especially to someone like me when I first got the news and it really helped me to shift my focus toward doing something constructive.

    That said, since your blog is a great resource for someone going through cancer I wanted to reach out to you to see if you were interested in a new online social support network (that I am the community manager of!) called I Had Cancer. It is a new and free social support network focused on connecting people based on experiences with cancer so that they can easily communicate with one another and share information. I would love to tell you more if you are interested, so please let me know! Because I was so impressed by your writing I would love to send you an early-​​access pass with extra invites for others you may know going through this journey.

    Either way, thank you so much for your writing. Take care and best regards.

  4. Evette said on:

    August 19, 2011 at 4:14 pm

    Yes, I think giving advice to others based on experience is really helpful. Nice blog

  5. Anne-Marie Mills said on:

    August 26, 2011 at 1:51 pm

    I was trying to read your post titled “A letter to a newly diagnosed Cancer Patient…but I don’t see it on the page. The blog ends with “Take from it what you will. It may not sound exactly like the advice you’ve heard from others”.

    Is there a link or something I am missing to read your “letter”?

    I am in the very beginning stages, waiting for a biopsy results. Your blog has been helpful so far.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Michel Fortin said on:

    August 26, 2011 at 8:21 pm

    The post has been fixed. Looks like it was hacked by a spammer.

  7. Josie Zambrano said on:

    September 27, 2011 at 7:49 am

    cannot read letter to to newly diagnosed cancer patient… how can I view this?

  8. Michel Fortin said on:

    September 27, 2011 at 9:04 am


  9. Dea Rushing said on:

    October 20, 2011 at 9:00 pm

    I, fortunately, have never had cancer, but I am a caregiver both professionally and personally. I loved this letter. I think your perspective in #4 is spot on. Rick mentioned that this letter should be required reading for anyone that gets the word and I think it would great reading for anyone that cares for someone that gets the word. Thanks for your blog.

  10. hub_specialist said on:

    November 3, 2011 at 11:19 am

    This letter is really amazing. It will boost the moral of all cancer patient and will help them to live a happier life and forgetting their sorrows. It would be psychologically healing the patient of cancer. People should share this blog and this letter to the social media sites to spread it further.

  11. Stephen T said on:

    November 21, 2011 at 1:57 pm

    Really moving letter. If anything you have given people diagnosed with cancer a better way to look at the whole situation. I’ve found that recent clinical research has been making strides forward in helping women with breast cancer.

  12. Ruth said on:

    December 1, 2011 at 7:30 pm

    This is really helpful, yesterday we found out that my mom is breast cancer, and I feel helpless, but this blog make me feel better


  13. Wendy J said on:

    February 24, 2012 at 5:45 pm

    Great letter, I just had a biopsy on Tuesday, waiting for the answer is very hard. Will it be cancer or not, but after reading your letter it gives me hope that if the answer is yes, I can think about your inspiring words to help me get thru.

    Thank you once again
    Wendy J

  14. sue said on:

    March 9, 2012 at 4:20 pm

    Well– I am now struggling to know what to say to a dear friend just dignosed even though I went thorugh the same 11yrs ago. Being a Christian we wnat and need to depend on God. But do we actually do that? Umm

  15. Lisa said on:

    March 10, 2012 at 6:02 pm

    I loved your letter! and I especially liked the part where you said to take your family and friends up on their offer of help. It an awesome way to take away their feeling of helplessness. The only thing I am wary of is when you said to trust your doctor. I recently saw a program on doctors getting cancer and there weren’t an awful lof of oncologists that were willing to do chemo. I found that a bit un-​​nerving.….
    Much appreciation from a 4 yr survivor.

  16. Vickie Jean DeHamer said on:

    March 12, 2012 at 12:42 pm

    Oh my God, Sylvie — this is so RIGHT ON.

    I didn’t go through breast cancer myself but I was one of those helpless friends not knowing what to do or say.

    It was my boss who had cancer and I was her assistant. Therefore — luckily — I was not able to offer my help then disappear. I got to sit with her during chemo and get instructions from her when she was feeling so incredibly ill she could barely talk. It was really an eye-​​opener.

    Anyway, I love to see posts like this tell it like it really is. Yours so perfectly did just that.

    Here’s my story of taking the smallest part of my boss’s big journey with fighting breast cancer, if you care to read it: zazou.com/blog/behind-the…-boss-doesnt-have-cancer/.

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