Cancer diagnosis: 15 excellent answers to “What next?”

Back when my husband, Gary, and I first heard those epic unbalancing words: “You have cancer,” my thoughts went to, What next? Where do we go from here?


Photo credit: Unsplash


Since every cancer patient and diagnosis is distinctive, some of the items listed here won’t apply, or at minimum, need a disclaimer. Better nutrition and increased physical activity, for example. A cancer patient should always confer with his/her oncologist before making any dietary changes or starting a new physical activity regimen.

With that in mind, here are 15 responses to the question, “What next?” (or even, “What comes after what’s next?” for those of us who like long-term plans and lists with space to make checkmarks. yes, I know. pitiful):

1. Brew a cup of tea.

Not a lightweight topic — this tea-drinking — since an entire blog was devoted to the therapeutic benefits of freshly-brewed tea. Sometimes the simple act of cradling a cup of steaming honey-laced amber liquid can help solve world problems, including those we carry on our shoulders. Or at least it can soften them.

2. Get a second opinion.

Gary and I once spoke at a prostate cancer conference at Oregon Health & Science University facilitated by Dr. Tomasz Beer (pronounced ‘Bear’), arguably the nation’s leading prostate cancer researcher. Afterward, he provided his scheduler’s phone number, and we saw him once a year. Just to stay on his research radar screen.

Meanwhile, back in our hometown, we had stellar medical and radiation oncologists. More than once, our medical oncologist placed a call to Dr. Beer to confer with him on a specific issue. We always admired that about our hometown oncologist, because how much confidence does that take? Your doctor should not mind if you decide to seek a second opinion.

3. Become better educated.

We need to be careful what we choose to read on the internet. There are reputable websites with information backed by science. And there are sites that want to sell us a miracle cure from the seeds of a rare plant growing along the Amazon that can only be harvested every third Thursday. Here’s a list of 10 reliable resources for cancer information.

4. Consider all options.

Sometimes there are no options for treatment or surgery. Sometimes there are options, but the best choice might be to do nothing. And sometimes there are several good choices. Which can be quite overwhelming to the newly-diagnosed patient: “Do you want to order from Column A, Column B or Column C?” Ask your doctor about the pros and cons of each option. And maybe out of curiosity, ask what he/she would do if in your situation.

5. Recruit an assistant coach and a full team.

You, the cancer patient, are the coach. The team we recruited consisted of the medical professionals, of course, but Hubby was the coach and I signed on as assistant coach. The rest of our team included better nutrition, increased physical activity, stress management techniques, getting plugged into community, and finding meaning from this senseless diagnosis. And all that was undergirded by our deep faith in God. Who’s on your team?

6. Ask a registered dietitian about nutrition.

I thought I fed my family healthfully—we didn’t keep junk food or soft drinks in the house; I baked from scratch; I didn’t go in for processed packaged foods—but I baked with white flour and white sugar and we ate white rice. Which meant there was room for improvement.

Our simple changes included more veggies, fruits, whole grains and legumes; healthful fats and sugars, i.e., olive oil, honey, molasses; and using meat in moderation as flavoring and enhancement.

There came a time, though, when Gary was losing weight and muscle mass. The cancer center registered dietician reminded me that he needed more protein and calories. Which meant there were five flavors of ice cream in our freezer at one point during that season because creamy and smooth was what sounded good to him. Consult with your oncologist or oncology RDN before making any dietary changes.

7. Increase your physical activity.

After checking with your doctor, find something you enjoy doing — bowling, gardening, walking to your mailbox, sumo wrestling. Hubby started hiking Pilot Butte, a small mountain planted in the middle of our hometown, every morning before work. I don’t do 5:30am very well, but on weekends we hiked the nearby Cascade Range. And then winter hit and because we had become addicted to weekend wilderness treks, we took up snow-shoeing. What do you enjoy doing? Find someone to do it with and get moving.

8. Consider peer support.

It helps to talk with someone who has already traveled the road you’re starting down. Gary trained to be a volunteer with Cancer Hope Network, a national organization that provides one-on-one support for adults impacted by cancer. CHN trains volunteers and matches them to cancer patients and their caregivers. You can contact them by completing the online form, or calling 1-877-467-3638 during office hours (8:30-5:30 EST).

9. Get plugged into community.

Gary was never interested in sitting in a circle with other men discussing cancer woes. But we stumbled upon a monthly educational dinner meeting, and then joined a hiking/show-shoeing group of cancer survivors and caregivers. Later still, I was hired as Survivorship Coordinator at the St. Charles Cancer Center, and my job was to facilitate the monthly educational dinner meetings, and the annual family camp in the mountains, and a host of other gleeful invigorating community-building activities. And community is critical. These people were more than friends; they were comrades-in-arm.

10. Keep a journal.

If you don’t enjoy writing, the thought of keeping a journal probably doesn’t appeal. But there is science that corroborates the therapeutic benefits of writing. A New York Times article entitled “Writing Your Way to Happiness” purports that writing about personal experiences can improve mental, physical and emotional health. Dr. Timothy D. Wilson, lead author of a Duke University study on the outcomes of writing one’s story, says this:

Writing forces people to reconstrue whatever is troubling them and find new meaning in it.

I love that thought. Reinterpreting the negative and looking for purpose in it. Which can drive us toward a more courageous life.

11. Learn to manage the stress.

Having cancer is stressful. For patient and caregiver. My husband and I came up with several ways that helped us manage the stress: hiking and snow-shoeing; establishing a standing date night; free concerts and dinner al fresco in the park by the river; a good book or movie; keeping gratitude lists. Here’s a list of 43 highly effective self-care tips. Find what works for you and practice managing the stress.

12. Prioritize what’s most important.

Hubby and I lived a fairly frugal life, budgeted to one income so I could be home with the kids when they were young. We worked and saved all our married life for someday. And then cancer showed up with this fearsome high-volume message: Someday is now. Which caused us to balance our frugalness with taking more road trips, hiking more mountains, spending more time with kids and grands, making more memories. I now have all those fabulous memories to wrap around me like a gorgeous snuggly companionable blanket on any bleak day that dares show its face.

13. Consider simplifying your life.

This tags onto the point above about prioritization. Before cancer hit, our financial circumstances required we pare down. We sold our home, gave away 30-some years’ accumulation of furnishings, and moved into an 800-sq-ft duplex. And life was simpler. No yard work; less square footage to clean; fewer things to dust; less rent and lower utility bills. Which meant we were freer to move about the country.

14. Create adventure and fun.

Not a *bucket list* assignment for terminal cancer patients, but questions for all of us to answer: What have we always wanted to learn or experience; where have we always wanted to travel? What’s the first step we can take to move us closer to our goals?

Cancer was the wake-up call for Gary and me. We knew we weren’t going to live forever, but cancer said, No, really … you’re not going to live forever. Ironically, we had more fun and created more adventures and memories during the cancer years than at any other time in our marriage. I concurred with Gary when he said, “These have been the best years of our marriage.”

15. Consider giving back.

Consider creating a way to give back utilizing your passions, interests and skill sets. Hubby trained to be a peer support volunteer with the national Cancer Hope Network organization, as mentioned earlier.

He also designed a couple of websites — one with trail information that he maintained with photos and one for nutritional recipes that hosted my experimentations. Our motivation was to encourage people toward increased physical activity and better eating.

We also established a non-profit and shared with a variety of audiences across the country: This is what we’re doing to live well with terminal disease. I’ve heard Gary say more than once that providing hope and encouragement always gave him a big boost.

Which begs the questions: Where are you on the timeline of a cancer diagnosis, and what do you want to do next?

P.S. If you know of someone who has just been diagnosed with cancer, please share, tweet or pin!


Where is Hubby when I need him?!


Who are you traveling with?


  1. Wendy Archer

    As always, lots of good food for thought! And much of what you have written here can be applied to everyone (regardless of whether they have had a cancer diagnosis or not) to improve their lives. Thanks Marlys, you are always inspiring and stimulating :*)

    • It’s true, isn’t it, Wendy? If we take care of ourselves, and seek to stay informed, and have a support system around us, and if we look for ways to give back – whether dealing with cancer or not – that makes for better living, doesn’t it?

  2. Peter

    Each of your heading, resonates over and over with us, so far as our ‘journey of living with’. For you to share and turn peoples thoughts so as to motivation them in so many ways, is a gracious gift and though some of us don’t say it often enough, we truly appreciate and thank you for being able to use your gift of giving. I’ve been missing in the last few months and I KNOW I SHOULD have contacted you over your previous blogs, I just procrastinate and apologise, however my ministry must go on too. Take care, God Bless, Barbara & Peter

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