Keep Calm and Carry This List With You on Diagnosis Day

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The day someone you love is diagnosed with a terminal disease, the sheer terror that takes over will likely cause you to go into shock. After that, figuring out what to do next—how to put one foot in front of the other and carry on—can be just as perplexing, complicated, and traumatic as the news of the diagnosis. That’s why this week I’m sharing my top five things to do the day someone you love is diagnosed with cancer.

1. Call a best friend (or five). Maybe it’s your college roommate. Your childhood buddy. Your summer camp BFF. Regardless of whether or not you consider yourself a private person, I urge you to contact a friend for support. There’s something incredibly comforting about hearing a friend simply listen.  Furthermore, letting a close friend know the news early can help him or her more easily be a consistent source of support for you in the future.

2. Work your network. This might be an over-achieving Day One activity, but at the very least start thinking about the people you know. The secret power of your network is that you never know who you know who knows the sister, brother, cousin, housekeeper (you get the idea) of a top-notch, cutting edge oncologist who can get you an appointment with one quick phone call. If there was ever a time to broadcast your ask, now is the time. Working your network can also help connect you to people who have been through what you’re going through and who can shed light on what’s to come—both for you and for your loved one. Connecting to others who are fighting the same disease can help your loved one prepare for symptoms and learn about the experiences of other people with the same illness.

3. Do something (anything) else. It may seem unnatural (or even wrong) at first, but try to do something unrelated to the distressing news. It doesn’t have to be an activity that lasts a long time; it can be something simple, like watching a TV show or responding to a couple of quick work emails or going to the gym or cooking yourself a meal. Your ability to juggle your loved one’s diagnosis and the normal demands of your everyday life will become more and more important, and the faster you can adapt to this, then the stronger your mental health will be. That said, if you simply don’t feel ready to do this on Day One, there’s always Day Two.

4. Set a schedule for Day Two. The dreadful feeling of waking up “the morning after” is just as horrible as hearing the diagnosis for the first time. On Day One, before you go to sleep, make a plan for Day Two. It doesn’t matter what the schedule is, it simply matters that you have one. Your Day Two schedule will help keep you grounded, so that when you wake up in the morning and the dark reality envelops you all over again, you have something to do. Go out for bagels. Go for a run. Breathe.

5. Just go with it. Everyone grieves, adapts, and comes to terms with trauma differently, and it’s worth figuring out how you are feeling and doing what feels right to you. Listen to yourself, and do what comes naturally.  So cry, hug your newly-diagnosed loved one. Hug everyone. Take a bath, or eat a large bag of Sour Patch Kids (that’s what I did). Whatever makes you feel good, however you know to express yourself—go with it.

Of course, these tips are based on my own experience, and everyone’s experience will be different. But I hope that this list will help you dodge the sting of the shrapnel that comes on diagnosis day. Because you will get through it—one way or another. Day Two will come. 

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