The First 48 Hours

Patient Expert

You've just been diagnosed with breast cancer. Now what? Expert Patient Beth Brophy explains what you need to know.

If you've just learned that you have breast cancer, you may be encountering some of the most anxious moments of your life. Although research has come a long way over the past decade in developing extremely effective treatments, the "C" word is still a terrifying one to add to your vocabulary--especially if you're referring to your own health. At this point, your imagination is probably running wild with fears of what is going on inside your body, and the measures necessary to fix it.

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation--naturally, they're hard words to stomach.

The most important thing at this point is to try to stop the thoughts racing through your head and, as calmly as you can, focus on the significant challenge ahead of you. There's a wealth of information on this site to help you plan your best course of action over the next few days. Below you'll find a step-by-step guide to what you should know--and do--after a breast cancer diagnosis.

1. You've found a lump.

Maybe you've just found a lump, or you're waiting for the results of a diagnostic test, or you're anticipating a biopsy. You're scared. While you're waiting for your test results, don't worry yourself unnecessarily by overloading on breast cancer information. But if you're the kind of person who finds it reduces your anxiety to read as much as you can, My Breast Cancer Network is here to help. Click here for a full overview of breast cancer, diagnosis and treatments.

Before you go on, take a deep breath, and consider this comforting statistic: 80 percent of breast lumps are benign. Your doctor may prescribe follow-up tests, starting with the least invasive, such as diagnostic mammograms and ultrasound, and proceed to more invasive needle or surgical biopsies. Click here to learn about the procedures used to diagnose breast cancer.

2. You've been diagnosed with breast cancer.

The news that you have a life-threatening disease is overwhelming. What's more, over the next few stressful months you'll find yourself feeling like you are taking a crash course in medical school as you figure out what menu of treatment choices best suits you and your individual cancer. Breast cancer is not one disease--every tumor is different and your treatment options are many. Your team of doctors will advise you on the best plan of action, but remember, the final decisions are up to you.

One important thing to keep in mind at this point: when you meet with your surgeon after the biopsy, don't go alone. You need to bring three things:

• A trusted relative or friend--an extra set of ears can help you figure out your options and will help catch any details you miss.

• A tape recorder so you can replay the session later.

• A list of questions to ask your doctor.

Get a second opinion, or even a third or fourth, before you make any final decisions about your treatment. As a reporter, I felt I needed a lot of information to feel comfortable: I went on to get six opinions at major cancer centers in three states before making a final treatment decision. You may feel a little odd telling your doctor that you are seeking a third, fourth or fifth opinion, but don't let that get in the way of getting to a level of understanding with which you are totally comfortable.

You should be in possession of all your medical records--mammograms, test results and pathology slides--so you can show them to whomever you need to consult. They belong to you, not your doctor.

Our Find a Doctor tool can help you locate the best specialists in your area.

Finally, remember that breast cancer is not a death sentence. Many thousands of women beat the disease every year.

3. Deciding on a breast cancer treatment plan.

Get ready to digest a ton of new information. The good news is that there have been many advances in breast cancer treatment in the last 10 years, giving you a wide range of options and a tremendous amount of hope. The challenge is determining the right treatment for your body, and that can be a time-consuming, daunting task. Luckily for me, my husband spent hours online doing research and was soon grilling my doctors on the finer points of obscure breast cancer studies around the world.

Be sure to read our treatment guides to learn more about the wide range of treatment options available to you. Treatment options range from local--which includes surgery and radiation--and systemic--which reaches cancer cells throughout the body and includes chemotherapy and hormone therapy.

After you've settled on a course of treatment, our Drug Information page can answer any questions you have about your medications, their side effects and interactions with other drugs.

4. Sharing the news about breast cancer with your children, family and friends.

You've just been overwhelmed with the news that you've got breast cancer, and eventually you're going to face the task of telling your family and friends. Tell your family as soon as possible. It's not an easy job, but you can read "How To Tell Your Children About Breast Cancer" to get tips on how I did it at the Just Diagnosed section. For telling everyone else, you may want to send an e-mail or letter to your close friends, if only to spare yourself having the same conversation over and over. You can find a sample email in our Just Diagnosed section. Last, let your boss and co-workers know about your situation--there may be special arrangements you can make if you want to continue working, take a break from work during your treatment, and sort out insurance issues.

5. Staying up-to-date with the latest research.

You will no doubt want to stay on top of the latest developments in breast cancer research and treatment. Our news and news archive sections report on new developments as they arise. You can also subscribe to our custom cancer newsletter, which combs through hundreds of journals and news sources and delivers updates to your e-mail box . There is new research on several fronts, including zeroing in on specific types of breast cancer, targeted therapies that attack only cancer cells while leaving normal cells intact, new drugs that fight the cancer with fewer side effects, and new drug delivery systems.

6. Getting on board with breast cancer clinical trials.

Researchers are constantly studying better ways to treat breast cancer, and clinical trials can be a great way to take advantage of the latest science. Over the last few decades, advances have allowed thousands of women to beat breast cancer. To be on the cutting edge of new treatments, you may want to consider participating in a clinical trial during your treatment.

For instance, nearly five years ago, my oncologist recommended that I participate in a clinical trial of aromatase inhibitors, a class of drugs that physicans are prescribing more and more frequently for post-treatment care. The study was "unblinded" after two years because the drugs were so effective, and it turns out that I was taking the drug, not the placebo.

7. Connect with women who understand what you're going through.

You don't need to go through this experience alone. More than 200,000 American women will be diagnosed this year, and the vast majority of them go on to lead healthy lives. But undergoing treatment is scary, and you may want to read about how others handled situations similar to yours. Peruse the Connect section of My Breast Cancer Network, where you can read my blog, explore other helpful breast cancer blogs, and talk to other women on our message boards. Last, be sure to check out our list of top Web sites where you'll find additional resources and support.

The First 48 Hours | Questions for Your Doctor | Breaking the News to Your Children | Telling Your Friends and Co-Workers | Ten Common Myths