Coping with Cancer

5 Questions Cancer Patients Should Ask Their Doctor

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By Henry Ford Health System Staff

Any medical diagnosis can be difficult to come to terms with, and cancer – a disease that takes numerous forms and results in more than 8 million deaths every year – is an especially tough diagnosis to receive.

Because the nature of cancer and cancer care is so complex, it can be difficult to even realize what you don’t understand, what you should know and what questions you should be asking your health care team.

Alyson Simonds, a registered oncology nurse at Henry Ford Health System, works with cancer patients every day – and knows what questions they typically ask and what topics often cause confusion. Here, she provides insight on the questions cancer patients and their families should be asking their health care team to better understand their care.

    1. What type and stage is the cancer?
      This is an important first question to help you build knowledge around your diagnosis. Knowing what type of cancer you have, the stage it is presumed to be and your doctor’s opinion on your condition can help you gain some clarity and may help ease any fears and uncertainty. “People who are newly diagnosed with cancer often have fears about death and dying related to a cancer diagnosis,” Simonds says. “It’s scary – but the more accurate the information you have, the more you can put your diagnosis into perspective.”At an initial diagnosis, doctors may not know the exact stage of your cancer or if it has spread from where it originally started. Oftentimes, additional testing, procedures or surgery may be needed, which will give the doctor more information to help determine the precise stage of the cancer.Many cancers are treatable and often curable, so it’s very important to get the facts from your health care team. By getting a feel for what your doctors’ thoughts on the cancer, you can think about what you want to do and what the best course of action is for you.
    2. What are the first steps?
      You have cancer. So, now what? Do you need surgery? Chemotherapy, radiation or maybe all three? Asking what the first steps are after your diagnosis will help you to prepare and plan for what life may look like for you while undergoing treatment.“Patients often feel confused by the complexity of cancer care,” Simonds says. “Cancer care and treatment often require many different disciplines of medical care, and it can be difficult to navigate what your first steps need to be without consulting with your health care team.”
    3. What will the timeline of my treatment look like?
      Each cancer diagnosis is unique, and each patient is different – from when they need to start treatment to how soon they can get back to their normal life. For the patient, it’s helpful – and necessary – to know how soon after your diagnosis you need to start treatment and what to expect along the way.“When learning about treatment plans and how long patients will need them, one thing many patients worry about is possible side effects,” Simonds says. “It is important to ask about what side effects are and how their treatment may affect the way they feel and what can be done to help alleviate any discomforts.”
    4. What is the goal of treatment?
      “Sometimes, patients believe the goal of treatment is to get rid of cancer, but, depending on the stage, that may not be the goal,” she says. “While the ultimate goal could be to eliminate the cancer, in some cases, it could also be to slow the progression of the disease.” Undergoing treatment can be a difficult task, but as a patient, you do have options, Simonds says. It is important to know what standard treatments are recommended and also what clinical trials may be offered for their particular cancer.Patients are ultimately in the driver’s seat when it comes to their care, and having open conversations with your health care team, and even seeking a second opinion to see what other doctors offer treatment-wise, are ways to determine what is right for you.
    5. Who can I call to help answer questions if I need further clarification?
      Navigating your diagnosis, treatments, doctor visits, and just a new, sometimes disrupted way of life, is tough. At your appointments, your health care team may use medical jargon you don’t understand. Or, you were given so much information you can’t retain everything. You have a lot going on – you might think you know what your doctor said, but as soon as you get home you don’t have a clue. Knowing who you can call to get the answers to your questions regarding your cancer, your care and anything else you need is crucial for keeping you on track – and for alleviating unnecessary stress.

“With many things – but especially cancer – no question is unimportant,” Simonds says. “So don’t be afraid to ask. And if you don’t feel comfortable talking with your doctor, it may be helpful to seek another opinion.”

Bringing a trusted friend or family member with you to help support you during your appointments can help take the pressure off of you to remember what the doctor said. This support person can also make sure your questions get answered and serve as an advocate for you as you undergo treatment.

Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.

Alyson Simonds, RN, BS, CN-BN is a registered nurse and a certified breast oncology nurse navigator (CN-BN) who works with breast cancer patients through the Multidisciplinary Breast Oncology Program and Breast Tumor Board at the Henry Ford Cancer Institute.