Cancer Patient Guide

[ Where to Begin ]

What to Expect First

Your doctor will ask about your current symptoms and history of your cancer diagnosis, past medical history, current medications, allergies, and family medical history before examining you. Each specialist that you see may ask the same questions and examine you again to understand your personal needs from the perspective of that specialty. It's a good idea to bring all of your current medications with you when you see a specialist for the first visit.

You may see several doctors and have a variety of diagnostic tests. Sometimes these tests will be repeated to double-check the results or to learn if your condition is changing. Blood tests, X rays, CT (computerized tomography) scans, MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging), and other imaging tests may help determine where the disease is located and the extent of the disease. A biopsy, the removal of tissue or fluid for examination, can help your doctor make an accurate diagnosis.

Several specialists may need to be consulted to discuss your diagnosis and your treatment options. Those specialists include:

  • Radiologist - interprets X rays, CT scans, MRIs, and other imaging studies.
  • Pathologist - examines tissue or fluid removed during a biopsy to make a diagnosis.
  • Surgeon - performs operations to assess the nature and extent of disease, to remove most or all of the disease in order to either cure it, or to provide symptom relief.
  • Medical Oncologist - uses drugs and hormones to either cure disease or provide symptom relief.
  • Radiation Oncologist - uses external radiation beams and radioactive substances inserted in the body to cure disease or provide symptom relief.

Waiting for Test Results

Because treatment choices differ for various kinds of cancer, and even for stages of the same cancer, you want all of the necessary tests to make an accurate diagnosis and staging determination. Depending on the complexity or rarity of the cancer, it may take a few days or even a few weeks to make an accurate diagnosis and staging. Since such a short period rarely makes a difference in the treatment or its success, try not to worry about this delay.

You may read or hear “facts” from friends, the news media, or the internet. Frequently, little if any of this information will apply to you. Cancer is more than 100 different diseases, all of which can be present at different body sites and in different stages of development. It is unlikely that another person’s experience or a particular research finding exactly applies to your illness. Wait until you talk to your doctor before forming opinions or making decisions. Each case is unique.

You may feel stressed, anxious, and frightened. Friends and relatives may overwhelm you with “cancer stories,” both good and bad. Try to surround yourself with people whose support you find helpful. And, don't be afraid to ask your doctor about any of your concerns you may have about these reports.

Getting Organized

Have a notebook for the names, phone numbers, and other information that you collect. Keep this notebook with you so you can write down questions as they come to mind. Take the notebook and a calendar with you to all medical appointments.