What Should I Ask My Doctor About Cancer?

Your relationship with your doctor is a critical part of your care. Ideally, you will have one doctor who coordinates all of your care. This doctor should be someone with whom you feel comfortable, someone you feel listens to your concerns and answers all of your questions thoughtfully and thoroughly. Your doctor will explain your diagnosis, health status, treatment options, and progress throughout treatment. There will also be nurses working with your doctor who have specialized knowledge and skills. These nurses are there to assist you with your treatment or any side effects you may have. In many cases, the nurse can answer your questions directly. Nurses can also help you get the answers you need from other members of your health care team.

Like all successful relationships, your relationship with your doctor is a two-way street. It is your responsibility to ask questions and become educated about your treatment and health - to become an active part of your cancer care team. Doctors differ in how much information they give to people with cancer and their families. Likewise, people who are newly diagnosed also differ in the amount of information they need or want. If your doctor is giving you too much or too little information, let them know. Ask them whatever questions you have, and keep them informed of your needs. As in any relationship, clear and honest communication is the key to success. Your doctor will discuss your treatment plan with you. The following are examples of questions to ask during the discussion:

  • What type of cancer do I have? What is the stage or extent of my cancer?
  • What is my prognosis, as you view it?
  • What treatment do you recommend and why?
  • What is the goal of treatment; cure or control of my symptoms?
  • What are the possible risks or side effects of treatment?
  • What are the pros and cons of my treatment?
  • Are there other treatments for me to consider?
  • How often will I need to come in for treatment or tests?
  • How long will my treatments last?
  • What if I miss a treatment?
  • Will my life change? Will I need to make changes in my work, family life, and leisure time?
  • What are the names of the drugs I will take? What are they for?
  • What other drugs or treatments may I have to take?
  • How will you know that my treatment is working?
  • Why do I need a blood test and how often?
  • If other specialists take part in my care, who will coordinate my entire treatment program?
  • What symptoms or problems should I report right away?
  • If I do not feel sick, does that mean the treatment is not working?
  • What are the chances that my cancer may recur (come back), with the treatment programs we have discussed?
  • What can I do to be ready for treatment?
  • Will I still be able to have children after treatment?
  • Are there any special foods I should or should not eat?
  • Can I drink alcoholic beverages?
  • What costs will I have?
  • What is the best time to call you if I have a question?

Make sure that all your concerns and questions, no matter how small, have been answered. It may take more than one visit to discuss all of your concerns, as new questions may come to mind. It may be hard to remember all your doctor says to you. Some people find it helpful to take notes, bring a family member or friend, tape record the conversations, and/or bring a prepared list of questions and write down the doctor's answers.

Remember that you have the right to a second opinion about your diagnosis and the recommended treatment. Asking for a second opinion does not mean that you don't like or trust your doctor. Doctors understand you need to feel that every possibility for the best treatment is being explored. You can also ask your doctor if they have consulted with other specialists at their treatment center.