We all remember the day we heard those words, “You have cancer.” We are shocked and overwhelmed. Whether it’s our primary care physician, our OB/GYN or a specialist in pulmonology or dermatology, we’ll get a referral to an oncologist (medical/chemotherapist, surgical or radiation).
Most likely, we’ll have some additional blood work, scans and/or imaging tests to help the oncologist evaluate the intricate details of our cancer. It will seem like forever until the first oncology appointment arrives.
Planning For Your First Visit
Don’t go alone. Ideally, our caregiver/spouse/best friend should accompany us. Two sets of ears are better than one. Take a notebook and take notes or use a recording app on your smartphone.
Get CD copies of your scans or MRIs for the doctor to review. Sometimes, an oncologist might want to look at the actual images rather than rely on the written report.
Bring a complete list of medications, supplements, vitamins, and herbal products you currently take. Either bring the actual bottles or write down the dosages that you take. Be sure to include calcium and vitamin D, as these might interfere with some cancer treatments.
Be prepared to answer the oncologist’s questions honestly. Our medical team needs us to be totally truthful about our symptoms and our lifestyle (including alcohol use and smoking).
Questions to Ask
We need to try our best to relax as much as possible. Our oncologist will have already evaluated our situation and will probably ask us some additional questions.
This is normally the time when your oncologist will confirm your diagnosis (exact type of cancer and stage) and the treatment plan. Usually, they will ask us if we have any questions. They may have answered some of these questions, but if not, here are the questions we need to ask.
- What is my exact diagnosis?
- Has it spread?
- What is the exact stage of my cancer? What does this really mean for me?
- What is my prognosis?
- Please explain my pathology report/laboratory results and exactly what they mean.
- Why is this treatment recommended?
- Are there other options for treatment beside what you’re recommending?
- What is the goal of my treatment?
- How often are these treatment and how long do they last?
- Are there any special preparations we should make?
- What if I want a second opinion before I start treatment?
Side Effects of Treatment
- What are the side effects? Will I lose my hair?
- Will I still be able to work?
- Will this affect my fertility? Is there a way to protect my ability to have children?
- What if I have problems after a treatment?
- Is there an emergency number? How soon will they help me if it’s the weekend?
Financial and Support
- Can someone help us understand how much this will cost?
- Is there financial aid?
- Is there help for the emotional part of this diagnosis?
- Is there a support group?
- I live alone – what help will I need?
- Who coordinates my treatments at different facilities?
- How can I learn more about my cancer?
- What websites can we trust for reliable information?
- Are there things we can do to help ourself during treatment?
There is an astonishing amount of information to absorb in a very short period of time. Ask for as much in writing as possible so that you don’t forget. Remember that no question is “silly or stupid” – every patient’s circumstances and diagnosis is unique.
Be sure to ask for your treatment plan and the exact names of drugs in writing. Many oncologists provide a printout from ChemoCare.com which provides the types of cancer the drug is used for, how the drug is given and its side effects along with precautions and self-help tips.
Prepare for your first treatment by buying groceries and making some meals ahead of time and freezing them. Here are some useful tips to get ready for your first chemotherapy.
Take some deep breaths and think positive thoughts. Many people find comfort and peace thinking about the patients who came before them and sat in those very chairs and heard those very same answers to the questions you’re going to ask. They were brave enough and strong enough, and you will be too.