- Learn as much as you can about your type of cancer. Do this as soon as you can. You’ll be asked about it often, so it is helpful if you can accurately talk about it to those trying to help you.
- Ensure you can logistically work with your oncology team. After your diagnosis, you will likely be referred to a facility with an oncology team by your regular doctor. From frequent visits to that location to navigating the hospital to your insurance coverage, this team will play a large role in your treatment experience. Ensure it is logistically feasible for you to work with them.
- Find an oncology team you can trust. You need to be able to communicate with and trust your oncology team, and if for some reason you don’t want to work with a team member, that’s OK. Your reasons for a needed change may vary, or this may be a gut feeling, and that’s OK as well. You can request a different person in a specific position, request a referral to a different oncology team or research other options yourself.
- Ask for the test results you want. You can always ask about treatment options to see what the doctor recommends. For example, you can ask if your genes put you at higher risk of complications or the disease coming back. More generally, you can ask if treatment is working. You can also mention that you’ve heard about a particular treatment option and are wondering if it would be a good fit for you.
- Use the resourcefulness of your navigator. You’ll be assigned this person as a guide in your treatment journey. They will help you find your way around the hospital. They also can translate complex medical jargon into words you can understand. If you have questions, they know where to get answers or clarifications and can help you get connected with the right person.
- Know what to expect financially. If you aren’t sure what your insurance will cover, you can ask the billing specialist to check which tests and aspects of your treatment are covered by your insurance or will have to be paid out of pocket by you.
- Take extra precautions to keep yourself healthy. During your treatment, your immune system is compromised. Taking extra precautions will increase the likelihood of successful treatment. You can do this by limiting your exposure to other illnesses, such as staying up to date with vaccinations and boosters, wearing a mask, sanitizing frequently and limiting high-risk social interactions. Not only will this directly protect your health, but it will also keep your oncology team healthy and focused on continuing your treatment.
- Speak up about side effects. During treatment, you want to keep yourself feeling as healthy as possible so that your body can withstand as much treatment as you need for as long as possible. Be open with your nurse and oncology team about what you’re experiencing, such as shakiness or nausea, as there may be remedies or alternatives that can help.
- Be extra patient and kind with the health care system. Know that the COVID-19 pandemic hasn’t changed the quality of your cancer treatment as doctors throughout the world follow new safety guidelines and procedures. It is likely that your oncologists do not work with COVID patients. However, the health care system is systematically under pressure, and you can ask about the way their facility has adapted. Additionally, it may take longer to schedule appointments over the phone and some check-ins may happen remotely through telehealth. Be patient and kind with your health care team to help mitigate their stress.
- There may be more treatment options. If your cancer progresses despite your current treatment, you can opt for more aggressive treatment options or clinical trials if you are interested. Ask your doctor for recommendations and look on clinicaltrials.gov (type in your condition and it will populate trial options). You can print and bring this list to your doctor, or for a second opinion, bring to a doctor at an academic center.
While the breast cancer experience is a difficult one, implementing these tips will help your care feel more comfortable and personalized for you. After your journey, when your cancer is in remission, you can maintain your own health advocacy by knowing what to look for and remembering where your largest risks lie. From here, you can find a balance between vigilance and relaxation while moving forward and enjoying your life. You deserve it!
Michelle Edwards is an accomplished global healthcare leader who successfully advances medical technology through strategy, analytics and market development. She is the CEO of Minnesota-based Martell Diagnostics Laboratories, Inc., a national CLIA-certified Reference Laboratory providing blood monitoring services for physicians and hospitals caring for women with breast cancer. She leads the organization with a strong focus on developing their flagship test, HERTEST, to monitor women with HER2+ breast cancer through their drug efficacy and recurrence detection. As a seasoned life sciences expert with more than 20 years of experience, Edwards has a long history of working with and for medical technology companies. She was recently the director of Navigant Consulting working with pharmaceuticals, biotechnology and medical device clients to build market development strategies. Before Navigant Consulting, she obtained profound experience in the cancer space from her roles at Eli Lilly and Company, a biotech startup developing a cancer therapeutic, as well as working with the American Society for Clinical Oncology.