If you've ever dealt with a major illness, either personally, or through a loved-one or good friend, you may have heard the term "advocate". More and more often, being an advocate for oneself can prevent difficulties that arise from miscommunications, unintentional delays in care, or simple misunderstandings of expectations.
The National Coalition for Cancer Survivorship (NCCS) published a booklet titled "Self-Advocacy: A Cancer Survivor's Handbook" to help cancer patients and their caregivers navigate the confusing new world of treatment and to help individuals be prepared for most of the possible scenarios. We will share several things from the booklet over the next few months, but today we're focusing on being proactive - things you should know and prepare for before a diagnosis of cancer, or any other major illness.
The following points will, as explained by the NCCS, help reduce your misunderstanding and increase opportunities to get the best care available if, and when, you learn that you or someone you care about is diagnosed with cancer...
Study and understand your health insurance coverage. It is important to fully understand your choice of facilities and health care providers when selecting a health plan. When facing the need for second opinions or researching large treatment centers, you may face barriers to accessing this type of care based on your insurance coverage. If you think that you might want to get an opinion or treatment at a major cancer center and/or specialist out of your area (if you are diagnosed), make sure that you fully understand your "out of network" benefits. If you don't, contact your health plan or your employer's benefits administrator for clarification.
Headlines are meant to sell newspapers and magazines and can be misleading. Hardly a day goes by without a news story heralding some breakthrough or major finding about cancer. One headline tells us certain foods may increase our risk for cancer, while another study and story may dispute that evidence. Keeping up with this kind of news helps you remain an "active" rather than a "passive" consumer, but keep in mind that scientific knowledge about what puts us at risk for cancer evolves constantly. Never hesitate to raise questions with your health care professionals about your risk for cancer based on current evidence.
Reduce your risk of exposure to known cancer-causing agents. We all look forward to the day when we will know for certain what causes cancer. Two very difficult cancers are largely, though not always, caused by lifestyle choices - lung cancer and skin cancer. You can lessen your risk of developing these cancers by not smoking or using tobacco products and by limiting sun exposure. Guidelines regarding screening for the most common cancers are constantly evolving. Check with your physician to determine how the most current evidence regarding screening for breast, prostate, lung and colorectal cancer may apply to you. (You can also contact Hope Cancer Resources' health educators, Casey Shelor or Sandy Prince. They can provide information and printed materials to help you understand the latest screening recommendations for various types of cancer.)
History is not destiny. If you have a family history of cancer, ask a health professional what role genetics or other risk factors may apply to your particular health profile. Understanding "relative risk" versus "actual risk" marks an important distinction when dealing with genetic or heritable risk factors for cancer. Note: If you are diagnosed with breast cancer and are interested in learning more about genetic testing for the BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 genes, contact our health educators for information.
Know and trust your body and your instincts. See your physician with any unusual symptoms that do not clear up in two weeks' time. If you are unsatisfied or instinctively sense that something is wrong, seek another opinion if possible.
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