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Finding out You Have Lung Cancer: Making Treatment Decisions

separator Finding out you have any kind of cancer is scary, but lung cancer is especially frightening to many people. Your very ability to breathe is at stake. It’s an anxiety-provoking time, no question about it.

But if you’ve just found out you have lung cancer, or if you have a loved one who’s heard this news, you need to focus. You have a lot of information to sift through now, and a lot of decisions to make.

In the past few years, researchers have learned a lot about new ways to treat lung cancer. This is partially because lung cancer is being detected earlier than ever before. It’s also because of developments in diagnosis. Doctors can tell more now about where a tumor is located, whether it has spread and how far it has spread. In some cases, cancers that just a few years ago may have been considered untreatable are sometimes quite treatable now.

All of this is good news for people with lung cancer, but it does make your job more difficult. Treatment for lung cancer—typically a combination of surgery, chemotherapy and radiation—tends to be more aggressive and more invasive than for many other cancers. It can also be more complicated.

Here are some things to keep in mind in the days or even weeks after your diagnosis:

In many cases, you do have time to think about your treatment decision. The tumor size can help you determine whether you need treatment instantly or whether you have time to think. You doctor will explain how big your tumor is and how likely it is to spread quickly. If there’s reason to believe that you have time, take it! 

A second opinion is almost always a good idea. Getting a second opinion is not an insult to your doctor. It’s a common practice. And it’s especially important in the rapidly growing field of lung cancer. It’s simply not possible for all oncologists to know everything there is to know about all lung cancer treatments. You should definitely get a second opinion if:

  • Your first doctor tells you there’s no treatment available for you. This may be true, but on the other hand, it may not be. New lung cancer treatments offer new hope that wasn’t available just a few years ago.
  • Your cancer stage and type is particularly rare.
  • Your doctor is not a lung cancer specialist.
  • You feel at all unsure about the treatment plan your doctor has recommended.

A doctor who specializes in lung cancer is probably your best bet. If at all possible, seek treatment from an oncologist whose specialty is lung cancer. That’s the doctor most likely to be aware of the very latest developments.

Get organized early on. Keep all of your lung cancer information in one place. If at all possible, take a friend or family member with you to take notes at appointments. Another set of ears is helpful when you’re trying to take in a lot of information.

Be sure you feel comfortable with your doctor. Your cancer doctor is going to be your main source of information, so you need to feel completely comfortable talking with him or her. If you feel like your doctor listens to your concerns, answers your questions honestly and thoroughly and respects your feelings about treatment, you’re in a good situation. If you don’t have that kind of relationship with your doctor, it’s important to keep searching until you do.

Whatever you do, don’t feel guilty
If you have lung cancer and you’ve smoked cigarettes, you may be feeling guilty. And even if you don’t feel guilty, there could be people around you who say things like, “Well, you always knew that smoking was bad for you.” If at all possible, stay away from people who aren’t supportive. You don’t need their negative responses right now.

It’s hard to quit smoking. If it were easy, there wouldn’t be so many people around who can’t give it up. The fact is that now you have to focus on taking care of yourself. It doesn’t matter why you got lung cancer. What matters now is what you do about it.

You also need to remember that the lung cancer statistics are just that—statistics. You are unique and your case is unique.

The American Cancer Society; The National Cancer Institute; C. I. Henschke, P. McCarthy, S Wernick. Lung Cancer Myths, Facts, Choices—and Hope. W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 2002.
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