Many people with cancer want to take an active part in making decisions about their medical care. It is natural to want to learn all you can about your disease and treatment choices. However, shock and stress after the diagnosis can make it hard to think of everything you want to ask the doctor. It often helps to make a list of questions before an appointment.

To help remember what the doctor says, you may take notes or ask whether you may use a tape recorder. Some people also want to have a family member or friend with them when they talk to the doctor - to take part in the discussion, to take notes, or just to listen.

You do not need to ask all your questions at once. You will have other chances to ask the doctor or nurse to explain things that are not clear and to ask for more information.

Your doctor may refer you to a specialist, or you may ask for a referral. Specialists who treat cancer include surgeons, medical oncologists, hematologists, and radiation oncologists.

Getting a Second Opinion

Before starting treatment, you may want a second opinion about your diagnosis and treatment plan. Many insurance companies will cover a second opinion if your doctor requests it. It may take some time and effort to gather medical records and arrange to see another doctor. Usually it is not a problem to take several weeks to get a second opinion. In most cases, the delay in starting treatment will not make treatment less effective. But some people with cancer need treatment right away. To make sure, you should discuss this delay with your doctor.

Treatment Methods

The treatment plan depends mainly on the type of cancer and the stage of the disease.

Doctors also consider the patient's age and general health. Often, the goal of treatment is to cure the cancer. In other cases, the goal is to control the disease or to reduce symptoms for as long as possible. The treatment plan may change over time.

Most treatment plans include surgery, radiation therapy, or chemotherapy. Some involve hormone therapy or biological therapy. 

In addition, stem cell transplantation may be used so that a patient can receive very high doses of chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Some cancers respond best to a single type of treatment. Others may respond best to a combination of treatments.

Treatments may work in a specific area (local therapy) or throughout the body (systemic therapy):

  • Local therapy removes or destroys cancer in just one part of the body. Surgery to remove a tumor is local therapy. Radiation to shrink or destroy a tumor also is usually local therapy.
  • Systemic therapy sends drugs or substances through the bloodstream to destroy cancer cells all over the body. It kills or slows the growth of cancer cells that may have spread beyond the original tumor. Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and biological therapy are usually systemic therapy.

Your doctor can describe your treatment choices and the expected results. You and your doctor can work together to decide on a treatment plan that is best for you.

Because cancer treatments often damage healthy cells and tissues, side effects are common. Side effects depend mainly on the type and extent of the treatment. Side effects may not be the same for each person, and they may change from one treatment session to the next.

Before treatment starts, the health care team will explain possible side effects and suggest ways to help you manage them. This team may include nurses, a dietitian, a physical therapist, and others. 

At any stage of cancer, supportive care is available to relieve the side effects of therapy, to control pain and other symptoms, and to ease emotional and practical problems. 

You may want to talk to the doctor about taking part in a clinical trial (a research study of new treatment methods). 

You may want to ask the doctor these questions before treatment begins:

  • What is my diagnosis?
  • Has the cancer spread? If so, where? What is the stage of the disease?
  • What is the goal of treatment? What are my treatment choices? Which do you recommend for me? Why?
  • What are the expected benefits of each kind of treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of each treatment? How can side effects be managed?
  • Will infertility be a side effect of my treatment? Can anything be done about that? Should I consider storing sperm or eggs?
  • What can I do to prepare for treatment?
  • How often will I have treatments? How long will my treatment last?
  • Will I have to change my normal activities? If so, for how long?
  • What is the treatment likely to cost? Will my insurance cover the costs?
  • What new treatments are under study? Would a clinical trial be appropriate for me?

Reference: National Cancer Institute (NCI)

This information is for general educational uses only. It may not apply to you and your personal medical needs. This information should not be used in place of a visit, call, consultation with or the advice of your physician or health care professional.

Communicate promptly with your physician or other health care professional with any health-related questions or concerns.

Be sure to follow specific instructions given to you by your physician or health care professional.

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