Finding out you have breast cancer can stop you in your tracks. You’re probably feeling a mix of emotions, and you likely have a million questions about what it all means and what comes next.
We understand and we’re here to help. So, let’s start by answering some of your questions about next steps after a breast cancer diagnosis right now.
Your situation is unique. So know that your care will be tailored to you, taking things like your type of cancer and health into consideration, as well as your own goals and preferences.
That said, here is a general idea of the steps you’ll take after being diagnosed with breast cancer.
5 steps after a breast cancer diagnosis
1. Schedule time to meet the first members of your breast cancer treatment team
After a breast cancer diagnosis, waiting for answers can be overwhelming. All you might be able to think about is, “I have breast cancer. Now what?”. But know that answers are on the way. If you’ve been working with your primary care doctor or a radiologist up to this point, your doctor may want to connect you with either a nurse navigator or a breast surgeon right away. Who you’ll see first depends on your breast cancer diagnosis. Either way, you’ll typically meet these two members of your care team first.
Your oncology nurse navigator
You might be wondering, what is a nurse navigator? Nurse navigators specialize in coordinating your care. They can help you make informed decisions throughout your cancer treatment. Your nurse navigator can help you schedule your appointments, manage your treatments and make sure you’re getting all the support you need throughout the treatment process.
Your breast surgeon
Surgery is often one of the first steps in the breast cancer treatment process. Breast surgeons specialize in removing lumps and cancerous tissues from breasts.
Why do you need to see a breast surgeon so soon?
Surgery allows your surgeon to determine how advanced your breast cancer is, as well as remove cancerous tissues to help prevent the disease from spreading.
How do you find a breast surgeon?
Your primary care doctor can provide you with recommendations. Your oncology nurse navigator can also help you explore your options and schedule your appointment. If you want to do your own research along the way, that’s a great idea, too.
What qualities and credentials do you want in a breast surgeon?
You’ll want to choose a breast surgeon you’re comfortable with. While some preferences are sure to vary from person to person, here are a few things you’ll want to pay particularly close attention to:
- Board certification – Board certification is a mark of distinction. It means your doctor has passed the American Board of Surgery’s stringent certification process to demonstrate their knowledge and skill within their specialty. Working with a board-certified surgeon can give you peace of mind in knowing you’re in highly trained and skilled hands.
- Specific experience – All surgeons are trained in general surgery, and those who go on to specialize in cancer removal are surgical oncologists. And oftentimes, surgical oncologists specialize even further in a specific cancer type, like breast cancer. So, it can be very beneficial to work with a breast surgeon who’s experienced in treating your type of cancer.
- Multidisciplinary approach to care – Your treatment plan should be tailored to you and be coordinated across specialists. Why does this matter? Because surgery is often just the first step in your treatment plan. Depending on your disease and your care preferences, other treatments like radiation, chemotherapy and targeted therapy may also be part of the plan. So your surgeon, along with your nurse navigator, oncologist, radiologist, pathologist and other members of your care team, should work in sync and coordinate the best order of treatments for you.
How long from breast cancer diagnosis to surgery day?
It’s usually just a few weeks. Getting your treatment started as soon as possible is a top priority.
2. Write down questions to ask your oncologist about your breast cancer diagnosis
Your head may be swimming with questions. If it is, get those questions on paper and out of your head. Begin writing them down and take them with you to your first appointment.
There’s no such thing as too many questions. And don’t dismiss any questions because you think they might be silly. Doctors and nurses have heard and answered them all, so ask away.
Initial questions you may want to ask your doctor about breast cancer:
- What are the types of breast cancer? Your doctor will be able to answer questions such as, “What is the most common type of breast cancer?” and “What is the most aggressive type of breast cancer?”
- What type of breast cancer do I have? It’s important for you to know the type of breast cancer you have and how it can be treated.
- What stage is the cancer and where is it? Breast cancer staging is the process doctors use to describe how large the cancer is and how far it has spread.
- Has my breast cancer spread? The cancer stage doesn’t always explain exactly where the cancer has spread, so it’s a good idea to ask this question to understand if it’s spread to your lymph nodes or other organs.
- How treatable is my breast cancer? The answer to this question will depend on how advanced your cancer is. If your breast cancer is found in an early stage, it’s highly curable.
- Will I need any other tests before we can decide on treatment? Depending on how advanced your cancer appears to be, additional tests may be recommended before building your treatment plan.
- What is the hormone receptor status of my cancer? Knowing the hormone receptor status of your cancer gives doctors a better idea of how to treat it. Breast cancer cells may or may not have receptors that attach to certain hormones, and rely on these hormones for growth.
- What is genetic testing for breast cancer and is that something I should do? Genetic testing may be able to help you learn whether your breast cancer is due to an inherited gene mutation, which may affect how it’s treated.
- How soon do I need to begin treatment? For certain breast cancers, doctors will want to begin treatment immediately. For others, more testing may be needed to decide the best course.
- How long will my treatment last? Depending on your situation, your care team may be able to estimate how long you should expect radiation or other treatments to last.
- Am I eligible for clinical trials? In some instances, emerging treatments may be available for you to try. Locally, HealthPartners Institute’s oncology research provides cancer patients with access to clinical trials and research, often right from their local hospital or clinic.
- Where will I receive most of my treatments? This could be at a clinic, a cancer center, or both. HealthPartners has locations throughout the Twin Cities and western Wisconsin.
How often do you see your oncologist?
How often you see your oncologist will depend on your treatment plan, how your treatments are progressing, and more.
3. Rally your support team
Which friends and family members will be there to help you through your diagnosis, treatment and beyond? Who’s going to take you to doctor appointments? Who can you call when you’re feeling blue? Who can watch your kids or help with meal planning?
It’s good for your support team to know what to expect. By having these conversations with your friends and family early, you’ll gain a better sense of where people can help and where you may still need some support. It’s good for your support team too, as they’ll be less prone to surprises.
4. Get to know the specialists on your care team
A team approach to breast cancer treatment is essential to getting you the comprehensive, personalized care you need. Your nurse navigator will help coordinate your care with the many doctors and specialists on your care team, which may include:
- Breast surgeon – A surgeon who specializes in removing lumps and cancerous tissue from breasts.
- Medical oncologist – A doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medications and chemotherapy.
- Radiation oncologist – A doctor who specializes in using radiation therapy to treat cancer.
- Plastic surgeon – A surgeon who specializes in reconstructing breasts after cancer treatment.
- Radiologist – A doctor who specializes in reading X-rays, mammograms, ultrasounds, MRIs, CT scans and other imaging tests.
- Oncology nurses and radiation therapists – Nurses who help you with your treatments, managing side effects and therapies.
5. Confirm your treatment plan next steps
Is chemotherapy an option before surgery? Will you do a lumpectomy? Or a partial or double mastectomy?
Whether we’re talking about surgery, therapy or some combination of both, there are many ways to treat breast cancer. And that’s why we team up with you – to help make sure we’re creating a treatment plan that works best for your situation.
Once you and your care team have decided on an initial treatment plan, your nurse navigator will help coordinate your next steps and more resources if needed. If you have additional questions, concerns or just need some extra TLC, you’ll find all the support you need.
No one should have to face breast cancer alone
Knowing exactly what to do after a breast cancer diagnosis can feel overwhelming. But the good news is that you don’t have to face all the questions and decisions alone.
You can count on us to help you through it all – with a personalized treatment plan and an integrated team of specialists to take care of you at every step of your breast cancer journey.
With award-winning cancer centers and clinics in Minnesota and western Wisconsin, we’re here for you and your family.
If you’ve been referred to an oncologist or surgeon, and have yet to schedule an appointment, choose a location and then give us a call.