After you have been diagnosed with cancer, you will probably have a team of health professionals involved in your care. The team might include a cancer specialist (oncologist), a surgeon, an oncology nurse, and your family doctor, among others. Trying to communicate with all these different professionals can be a challenge. You may want to pick one doctor to be your main point of contact.
Getting a cancer diagnosis can be scary and overwhelming. And when you feel emotional, it may not be easy to take in new information. You will probably have many questions, and your doctor may not have a lot of time to spend with you. To make the most of your appointments:
- Write down your questions ahead of time. Make notes as your doctor talks so you can review the information later.
- Bring an advocate. A family member or close friend can help you make sure you get the answers you need, take notes, and help you remember later what the doctor said.
- Tell your doctor how much you want to know and when. Some people want to know everything about the cancer and their treatment options. Others want to know just enough to make the next treatment decision. Let your doctor know which you prefer.
- Don't be afraid to ask for explanations. Medical terms can be confusing, and doctors sometimes forget that most people don't understand them. If you don't know a term your doctor uses, ask what it means. If you think you understood but are not sure, try repeating back what the doctor said using your own words: "Do you mean...?"
- Find out how to get your questions answered between visits. Can you e-mail questions? Should you call the office and leave a message? What is the best time to call? Or is it better just to make a follow-up appointment?
- Be sure you know what to do next. Find out if you need to schedule follow-up tests and when you should schedule your next office visit.
Preparing your questions
Cancer is a complex disease with many different treatments. Some questions you may want to ask include:
- What are the treatment options?
- What treatment do you recommend?
- What are the benefits of the recommended treatment?
- What are the risks?
- How likely is the treatment to be successful?
- What are the common side effects?
- How soon do I need to start treatment?
- How often will I need to be treated?
- Where will treatment take place?
- Do you have information I can read about this treatment?
You may also have a host of other questions. For example, you may want to know if you can keep working during treatment. Some people may wonder if cancer or cancer treatment will affect their ability to have children. Think carefully about what you want to know so you can go to your appointments well prepared.
Choosing the right doctor
Which doctor you choose to be your main contact will probably depend on what you value. To some people, the most important trait in a doctor is a warm and caring manner. Others prefer a doctor who is more businesslike. Cost may be a factor, too. You may want to check with your insurance company to find a doctor who is part of your contracted network.
No matter what the doctor's style, it is important to find a doctor who:
- You feel comfortable with
- Communicates well with you
- Listens to what you have to say
If you are not getting what you want from your doctor, try discussing the problem. Be honest and clear about what you want and see if your doctor can meet those needs.
If you are not happy with the outcome of this talk, ask someone else to serve in this role. You deserve to have a doctor who listens to your concerns and provides the information and support you need.
Created on 10/16/2007
Updated on 04/25/2011
- American Cancer Society. Talking with your doctor.
- American Society of Clinical Oncology. Talking with the doctors and nurses.
- CancerCare. "Doctor, can we talk?" Tips for communicating with your health care team.
- National Cancer Institute. How to find a doctor or treatment facility if you have cancer.