What to do after a cancer diagnosis
Finding out that you have cancer seems like a death sentence. It can come as an emotional shock for both patients and their loved ones as the prospects of the physical and financial burden also sink in.
MANILA, Philippines — Finding out that you have cancer seems like a death sentence. It can come as an emotional shock for both patients and their loved ones, as the prospects of the physical and financial burden also sink in.
Dr. Meredith Garcia, medical oncologist and founder of a Facebook community that shares information and support for cancer patients known as “KKK: Kaalaman at Katotohanan Tungkol sa Kanser,” acknowledges the importance of guiding patients and families, particularly in the early stages of their cancer journey. “Receiving a cancer diagnosis commonly triggers distress and grief over the many looming changes and uncertainties that accompany the diagnosis and treatment of cancer,” she said.
Dr. Garcia emphasized that what patients need first and foremost is a positive attitude and strong support system. “You are not alone. Express your feelings and surround yourself with people who are ready to listen to you and help you deal with your illness — they may be family members, friends, or even other patients. Good social support helps lessen negative emotions. As much as one’s body would physically permit, being diagnosed with cancer should not stop you from doing the things you love.”
Although many people are fearful of the idea of having cancer, Dr. Garcia pointed out that early diagnosis is nevertheless better than being afflicted with the disease at its later stages, when the cancer cells have spread, which is why testing and regular cancer screening are crucial.
“The survival rate of cancer patients who have been diagnosed early is generally more than three times higher compared to those whose disease was discovered late. Thus, it is of paramount importance to educate the general public about the possible warning signs of cancer and when to consult a doctor, as well as to encourage regular screening in order to catch the disease even before any symptoms appear,” she said.
It is imperative for patients to consult medical oncologists for proper guidance and advice on treatment options. Managing cancer is a complex undertaking that will need the help of family members and caregivers who will provide support to the continuum of care from hospital to home.
“Oncologists are legitimate cancer specialists. Together with other specialist doctors, oncologists work together in a multidisciplinary team to effectively deliver various kinds of cancer treatments. They can give you the best advice about the efficacy and possible adverse effects of cancer therapies, and hence, can help you choose the best treatment or combination of treatments to achieve the best possible outcome,” she said.
Dr. Garcia warned against alternative or herbal therapies that are gaining popularity in their scientifically unproven claims to cure cancer. “Unfortunately, many herbal and dietary supplements may carry greater health risks. The efficacy and safety of these supplements are questionable, often just basing their claims on small laboratory or animal studies and patient testimonials rather than properly conducted clinical trials. The results of a recent study by Johnson, et al., showed that cancer patients who were initially treated with alternative medicine alone were 2.5 times more likely to die versus patients who received conventional medicine.”
Alternative or herbal therapies can decrease the chance and duration of patient survival due to treatment delays. “It is always best to talk to your doctor first prior to taking any over-the-counter medications, especially nutritional supplements,” added Garcia.
She explained about the cancer treatments that are backed by science and clinically proven to fight cancer such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, targeted therapies, and immunotherapy. Immunotherapy, in particular, was selected as the breakthrough therapy of 2013 in the field of cancer treatment and for which researchers James Allison and Tasuku Honjo recently won the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine.
Immunotherapy utilizes the patient’s own immune system by lifting the “brakes” that prevent it from attacking cancer cells. “Clinical trials have demonstrated that many tumors not responsive to other types of treatment are decreasing in size or even disappearing completely after being exposed to immunotherapy,” said Dr. Garcia.
She proceeded to explain that further research studies are being conducted in order to harness the optimal potential of immunotherapy in fighting cancer. Since immunotherapy aims to target the immune system and not the cancer itself, it also has a different but generally more manageable side-effect profile.
In the patient’s journey against cancer, Dr. Garcia reminded that the multi-disciplinary team behind the patient should collaborate well with each other. “It is important for the cancer care team and caregivers to be in constant communication about how to provide the best possible care. For caregivers, do not hesitate to ask your doctors questions and give them your full cooperation. Remember, teamwork divides the task and multiplies the success.”
Dr. Garcia is a cancer-patient advocate fighting with “Hope From Within: Cancer Game Plan PH,” which espouses early detection, access to treatment, and improved patient navigation system in the Philippines.
This recently launched campaign aims to put patients at the heart of the fight against the dreaded disease. Using powerful voices from medical and scientific leaders, advocates, policymakers, survivors, support groups, patients, and the government, it boosted awareness of proper cancer care, sparking conversations and actions on how to reduce the burden of cancer-related mortalities and other challenges, and spread information and increase access to new, scientifically proven treatment options such as immunotherapy and targeted therapies.
Visit www.hopefromwithin.org to know more about where cancer patients can get support.