Cancer Patient Guide

[ You and Your Doctor ]

How to Talk to Your Doctor (or Nurse)

Good communication with your doctor and nurses is important. At your first appointment, throughout your treatment, and during lifelong follow-up, you must feel free to ask questions. No question is too trivial or embarrassing to ask.

Take a friend or family member with you, at least to the initial appointments. This is when your doctor explains your condition and when options will be presented. Take someone with whom you are comfortable talking and who can also help you remember what was said. Don’t be surprised if you can’t remember much of what was discussed. This is very common. You may want to ask your doctor if you may record your conversations.

Write your questions in a notebook and take it with you to every doctor’s appointment. You might ask about your symptoms, medications, side effects, upcoming tests, or about something you have recently read about cancer. Ask your most important questions at the initial visits with your doctor. This will help you focus on, and retain, the most vital information. Over the next several appointments, be sure to ask any remaining or new questions. Asking every possible question during the first couple of appointments can lead to information overload or less-than-comprehensive answers to your questions.

If you don’t understand what your doctor is saying, immediately ask that it be repeated or explained. Write it down if you feel that you won’t remember the answer. It is important that you understand what is happening.

Like the rest of us, doctors can forget things. Don’t be afraid to make a suggestion or give a reminder to any of your doctors.

After some point in your care, you may want to seek a second opinion. This can sometimes provide a helpful comparison or confirm your treatment choices. On the other hand, seeking multiple opinions can sometimes be a way of denying your cancer or delaying your treatment, which can be harmful. Only you can know if you are truly seeking information or if you are trying to avoid treatment. More information about second opinions can be found under “Cancer Treatment.”

If you are not satisfied with how your doctor explains things or answers your questions, you may consider finding another doctor. But it is also important to remember that bedside manner is not an indicator of a doctor’s competence.

Finding a New Doctor

If you decide, after careful consideration, that you would like to change doctors, many resources are available to help you in your search. Talk to your primary care doctor, your nurse, or call your hospital or HMO. Your county medical society will have additional suggestions. Also get recommendations from family or friends who have been treated for cancer. Make appointments to interview possible new doctors. Your initial specialist may also recommend another doctor. Most doctors understand that a patient may have a better rapport with a different doctor.

When you call a doctor for an appointment, you may want to ask the receptionist, nurse, or doctor the following questions: Is the doctor board certified? (This means the doctor has advanced training and has passed an examination to practice this specialty.) Is the doctor experienced in cancer treatment, and how many years of experience does the doctor have? Is the doctor associated with a teaching hospital?

Asking About Your Condition

You may want to direct the following questions to your doctor during one of your initial discussions.

  • What exactly is my diagnosis?
  • How was my diagnosis determined?
  • Are more tests planned?
  • How sure are you that the tests and diagnosis are accurate?
  • What is the “stage” of my disease? Is it in one place only, spread to surrounding areas, or spread throughout the body?
  • What do you advise me to do? (If your doctor is not a cancer specialist, you should be advised to see one for further evaluation and therapy.)
  • What are the goals at each step of diagnosis and treatment?
  • Will I be treated to achieve a cure, or is long-term management of symptoms or extended survival the goal? (The answer to this question is your prognosis.)

Asking About Treatment Options

Once your cancer has been diagnosed, you need to decide which treatment will be best for you. Asking your doctor these questions may help you determine your next step.

  • What are my options, including clinical trials?
  • Which option do you think is best for me and why?
  • What are the important long- and short-term side effects of this treatment?
  • What is the chance of each side effect occurring?
  • What can be done for each side effect, and how long will it last?
  • Is this treatment given as a cure, to reduce the size of the cancer, or to relieve symptoms so that I will feel better?
  • What are the chances of the cancer spreading?
  • What is the chance of this treatment extending my life?
  • What is the chance of this treatment improving my quality of life?
  • What is the chance of this treatment relieving the symptom that bothers me the most?
  • Would you (the doctor) take this treatment yourself? If not, what would you do?