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CancerResource: Diagnosis of Cancer

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Additional Resources

See also:

Our brochure Cancer Information: Where To Find Help: provides a listing various sources of cancer information and assistance, including a number of national organizations who may be able to offer assistance in finding local support.

You can also go to these pages in our Web site:

Updated November 2012

Here is a list of questions for your oncologist that can print out and take with you.


As we live longer lives, more and more people are likely to get cancer. There are, however, millions of Americans who have been diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer. Today, they are alive and well.

Better, and regular, screening tests have helped detect cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages. Treatment methods have also improved over the years. As a result, many people go into remission and also become long-term survivors. About 60 percent of the 1.2 million people diagnosed with cancer this year will live cancer-free for five years or more. For many cancers, these people have the same life expectancy as people who never had cancer.

The American Institute for Cancer Research strongly believes that being an informed, involved patient is an important factor in overcoming cancer. In this section, we discuss the initial questions and emotions nearly all cancer patients face upon first learning that they may have cancer.

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What Is Cancer?

As we live longer lives, more and more people are likely to get cancer. Already, there are millions of Americans who have been diagnosed with and successfully treated for the disease. Better, and more regular, screening has helped detect cancer at its earliest and most treatable stages. And treatment methods have vastly improved over the years. As a result, many people have become long-term survivors. As this has occurred, efforts to help survivors better cope with effects of treatment and lower their risk of recurrence have increased.

Although the term “cancer” is often used as if it were one disease, cancer is actually a group of more than 100 different diseases affecting various parts of the body. They all have one characteristic in common, however: the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells that can invade and damage healthy body tissues and organs.

Cancer is rarely caused by a single factor; rather, it is the result of a complex interaction between cancer-causing substances, called carcinogens, and heredity. The process begins with the many thousands of genes found in each cell of the human body. Genes, made up of DNA, carry instructions for making the proteins that regulate all body processes, including how efficiently we process foods, metabolize toxins and fight infections.

Genes are activated, or switched on and off, by signals in the body or by environmental influences. For instance, an unhealthy diet, cigarette smoke, too much sun, or high levels of certain chemicals can damage the DNA and cause genes to mutate, or change. When the body’s normal repair mechanism doesn’t work properly, because of genetic or environmentally caused mutation, the damaged cell continues to grow and multiply abnormally and can eventually lead to cancer.

Many people believe that all cancer is triggered by defective genes. However, most people who get cancer do not inherit altered, or mutated, genes. But in fact, only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are thought to be caused by an inherited “cancer gene.” Even if there is a strong family history of a particular cancer, it does not mean that cancer is inevitable. Dietary and lifestyle factors can interact with the genes to influence whether we actually get the disease.

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Understanding Your Diagnosis

It is very important to understand the diagnosis you receive when you visit the doctor. Powerful emotions – including denial, anger, fear and stress, loneliness, depression and hope – are a natural response to even a potential diagnosis of cancer. Getting the facts about your situation will help you make informed decisions in the days ahead. If you are nervous or don’t think you’ll remember what you are being told, then bring someone with you, ask your doctor to write out the information you need or take notes yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you understand what the doctor is saying.

The accompanying worksheet includes some questions you’ll want answered to help you take charge of your medical care.

As you cope with the issues associated with a cancer diagnosis, including the effects on your family routines and roles, speak openly about your feelings. If you or family members are having trouble adjusting to the diagnosis, considering seeking referrals to local support organizations for help. Many people find that cancer support groups or talking with another survivor with a similar diagnosis and treatment are a wonderful source of strength and hope and can offer practical ideas for everyday life.

Finding a Doctor and Health Care Team

One important consideration in cancer treatment is deciding on a doctor. You can find a board-certified oncologist by researching online and by asking your primary care physician, managed-care representative or a hospital’s oncology department. You must feel confident that your oncologist is not only experienced, but also competent and up-to-date and that he or she sees you as a partner in your treatment.

When visiting an oncologist, it may lessen your anxiety to bring a list of questions and paper and a pen or recorder with you. It’s a good idea to bring a family member or close friend with you to provide another pair of ears that may catch something you might miss – and to ask questions. Be sure you feel comfortable having an open discussion with your provider, as good communication is critical to a doctor-patient relationship and in taking an active role in your treatment.

Even if you are satisfied with your health team, a second opinion can be useful. It can give you confidence in the information you have already obtained or offer a different approach to treatment.

Published on June 8, 2012

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