The Proactive Patient: 10 Questions for Your Cancer Care Team

Contemporary Oncology®, Summer 2010, Volume 2, Issue 2

Ten Questions Every Patient Should be Asking

1. What type of cancer do I have and what is the stage of my cancer?

The type and stage of cancer are the best indicators of what lies ahead for the patient. Each cancer staging system indicates the size and location of the tumor and whether the cancer has metastasized (spread) to other areas. Oncologists determine treatments based on stage, with significantly higher survival odds at earlier-stage diagnosis.

2. What treatment do you recommend and what is the goal of this treatment?

Depending on the nature and stage of the cancer, there are a variety of treatment options, including surgery, chemotherapy (medications), radiotherapy, immunotherapy, proton therapy, and bone marrow transplants. These and other treatments are used individually or in combination with varying goals. Be sure to inquire about the frequency, duration, and location, of any recommended treatments.

3. What are the possible side effects of the treatment and how are they controlled?

Side effects vary according to cancer treatment and can include pain, nausea and vomiting, anemia, fatigue, distress, hair loss, and skin changes. Depending on their severity, these symptoms could affect your job or other aspects of your daily life. Discuss medications and other available options used to alleviate treatment side effects.

4. What lifestyle changes should I make before and/or after treatment?

Your oncology team will likely provide dietary and exercise suggestions to ensure your body is functioning at its best possible physical and mental level to respond to treatment and remain cancer-free. Beyond your physical health, your oncology team may also have lifestyle suggestions regarding emotional and social aspects of your life.

5. What are the chances that my cancer will recur?

A cancer recurrence is the return of cancer following treatment and a period during which the cancer is no longer detected. The cancer may return to its source or another location in the body. The risk of recurrence is unique to each patient with several contributory factors, including cancer type and treatment program.

6. What complementary and alternative treatments would be potentially beneficial for me?

These refer to nontraditional options that may enhance your lifestyle during and after treatment. Alternative methods include nontraditional therapies such as acupuncture; herbs, vitamins, and minerals; and pharmacological and biological treatments. Be sure to inquire about potential interference with your primary treatment, possible side effects, and insurance coverage.

7. Are there any open clinical trials that may benefit an individual with my diagnosis?

Clinical trials test the safety and effectiveness of promising cancer treatments. Depending on your diagnosis and previous treatment experience, it may be worthwhile to enroll in one of these cutting-edge research studies. Be sure to explore all the benefits and risks of clinical trials with your oncologist.

8. What are the costs related to the treatment and will my insurance cover them?

Treatment is often expensive and costs accumulate fast. While every patient deserves the best treatment plan regardless of cost, it is important to discuss financial and insurance matters related to any proposed treatment. Stay on top of financial matters by keeping organized making inquires every step of the way.

9. Can you recommend any patient support groups or additional resources for cancer patients?

Battling cancer can be emotionally and financially draining, and patients can always use additional support. The Internet is filled with resources, but whittling them down to your best options can be overwhelming. While your oncologist may not be an expert in this area, he or she may have acquired knowledge via patient anecdotes or can recommend a knowledgeable social worker.

10. What’s the best way for us to contact you?

Actively communicating with your cancer care team is crucial to both receiving your desired treatment plan and ensuring its success. When new questions arise you may need answers before your next visit. Also, should the severity of symptoms or side effects become abnormal, you must be able to immediately contact your cancer care team.