You have been diagnosed with cancer. A tornado of questions swirls through your mind, but fear and anxiety make it difficult to focus on exactly what you need to know.
Yet, that very knowledge will help you be an active participant in your care, a partner in maintaining your well-being, and a patient who can make reasoned, rational decisions.
To bring that tornado under control, start thinking about priorities. What are the core questions you need answered?
Mostly they will be centered on specific information about your type of cancer, treatment options, what to expect during your treatment, and about recovery.
Writing those questions down before you meet with your doctor will lower your stress level and help you get the most from your consultation.
Clinical studies have shown that people with cancer who are well informed about their disease and treatment options “usually have better outcomes and fewer side effects than those who simply follow doctors’ orders,” according to the American Society of Clinical Oncologists (ASCO).
There is plenty of information on the internet alone to help you come up with a list of at least 10 important questions you want to ask your doctor. The ASCO website is a good place to start. There also are many suggested questions, and advice on how to cope, at the websites of the American Cancer Society (ACS), MD Anderson Cancer Institute, and Cancer 101.
Bavesh Balar, MD, a hematologist and oncologist at CentraState Medical Center in Freehold, N.J., suggests 10 essential questions to ask your doctor.
Is the kind of cancer I have treatable? This is the start of any discussion with your doctor.
What kind of cancer do I have? Where is it located? Has it spread? This is the information upon which your treatment plan will be built.
What stage is my cancer? This provides important information that will guide the treatment strategy.
Should I take or continue using supplements (vitamins, minerals, etc.)? This depends on your treatment protocol. At the least, aim your diet toward healthy foods.
Will I be in pain? What medications will ease the discomfort? Patients with cancer are often already in pain from their disease. There are specialist physicians whose focus is pain management and many medications that lessen pain.
When should I tell my family? That is a very personal decision that only you can make. It does make sense that the closest family members know first so they can be fully informed about the cancer and treatment plan, and provide relevant support.
What is the standard treatment protocol for the type of cancer I have, and what are the downsides? First, any protocol will have a downside. Make sure you ask about the plusses and minuses of each. Factors such as age, general health, and the location of the cancer help determine the specific approach for your cancer.
Can you recommend colleagues for a second opinion? Balar not only encourages a second opinion, buts adds it is a necessity. You need to be comfortable with the recommended treatment. A second opinion affirming the first is a big step toward that goal.
How will cancer treatment affect my daily life? It is debilitating, to some degree, for most patients. Beyond that, it’s hard to predict. Many patients continue work, still socialize, and even exercise during treatment.
What cancer support services are available? In a word, many. Some help lighten the load of everyday responsibilities and lower stress for you and your family. Be sure to ask about services available where you are being treated and within your community.
There are many more suggested questions on the ACS website that are aimed at an even broader understanding of what you can expect as treatment and recovery progress.
Whatever questions you ask, remember that you are in the driver’s seat, and you need to remain there if at all possible. It is never a good idea to be the passive recipient of medical advice or treatment. If there is ever a positive side to being a pain in the neck, this is it – in the best sense possible. Your doctor and healthcare team will understand and support it.
March 04, 2015
Christopher Nystuen, MD, MBA