How to Talk to Your Doctor About Your Cancer Questions
When cancer is on the agenda, doctor’s appointments can feel like both the most important but most intimidating of events. Unfamiliar terms, drug names, and treatment descriptions can combine to make the experience overwhelming and frightening.
One important tool for combating both fear and confusion is asking the right questions to address your concerns. Several key strategies can help you.
- Prepare a list. One of the most important elements of good question-asking is preparation. During an appointment, as the conversation goes in new directions and doctors address their concerns, it can be all too easy to forget questions you had before the appointment began. You can avoid this situation by jotting down questions as they occur to you in the days or weeks before your appointment.
- Do some research. If you aren’t sure what to ask, or in addition to the questions you already have, it can be a good idea to research your type of cancer. This way, you can familiarize yourself with the terms the doctor may use and also understand details associated with your condition or its treatment, such as any side effects. Add any information or terminology that you don’t understand to your list, so that you can ask your doctor or nurse for more information. Like knowing you’ve studied before a test, you may find that your research significantly improves your confidence and comfort during an appointment as well as after.
- Review your list and get input. It can be helpful to review your list with a family member or close friend before the appointment, because they may be able to help you phrase your questions clearly or to think of questions or concerns that you did not.
- Bring someone with you. Taking the person who reviewed your list to the appointment with you can be extremely helpful. A trusted family member or friend may be able to ask new questions that come up during the visit if you don’t think of them, especially if they are already familiar with your list. If the person who helped review your questions isn’t available, consider bringing someone else. You will probably receive quite a bit of information at most of your doctor visits. Most of us have less than perfect memories, and even with preparation and careful attention you can easily forget some of what your doctor tells you. Having two people present may help. A friend can also support you if you don’t feel confident about asking questions, and they also may have questions of their own about the best way to give you help or support, which are also important to address.
- Be prepared if you can’t bring someone with you. If you cannot go with someone else, make an effort to write information down or perhaps bring a tape recorder to record the visit. If you do not feel confident about doing either of these things, ask for written explanations from your doctor. Never be embarrassed to ask for something to be repeated or reworded. Remember that although the same explanation that is routine for someone with a medical degree can be totally unfamiliar to rest of the population, you included.
- Document the information. With so much new information, advice, and instruction given during your treatment, and even if you don't feel comfortable writing everything down as suggested above, it is important for you to bring along a pad and pencil or pen so you can make notes of details you may want to refer to later. When you make your list of questions, leave space below each so that you can write the answers you are given. This can also help you talk to loved ones and caregivers, if they have questions about your treatment. You can also ask your doctor if there are handouts or patient-education pamphlets available. If your doctor writes out any instructions or information for you, look it over before you leave the office, to make sure you understand it.
- Ask all your questions. Make sure you take the time to ask and get answers to all of your questions, even if they seem simple or are unrelated to the focus of the appointment. If you don’t have the opportunity to bring them up during the examination or treatment, save them for the end of the session, and ask your doctor or nurse to address each one. Most importantly, remember that no question you have is a “dumb” question. You have every right to know about your health, well-being, and treatment. If it helps, try to remember that you are not the first and won’t be the last person to raise a particular concern or ask a certain question. Patients are a critically important part of the cancer care team, and it is important that your doctor is aware of your concerns and that you feel confident that you understand the nature of your condition and details of your treatment. Furthermore, if there is something your doctor is explaining that you don’t understand, keep asking until you do.
- Find out how you can get in touch. Often, even if patients leave the appointment feeling satisfied that they have the answers they need, more questions arise later. Find out how you can reach your doctor or other health care professional in the office, if you have additional questions.
For most people facing a cancer diagnosis, a doctor visit can be an overwhelming prospect. Preparation can make it the most positive and productive experience it can be. Knowing the right questions to ask helps you get the answers you need to be an effective partner in your cancer treatment and to be confident about your care.
Where to start researching your questions
When doing research via the Internet, always make sure you are visiting a site with reliable information that comes from valid medical experts. In addition to resources like the American Cancer Society and National Cancer Institute (see resources) below, NCCN.com provides a number of places to start:
NCCN Treatment Summaries for People With Cancer
Dictionary of Cancer Terms