10 questions to ask your doctor during your first visit

Questions to ask
Whether you’re visiting a doctor for the first time, or seeking a second opinion, asking the right questions can help you to understand important information about your cancer diagnosis.

Whether you’re visiting a doctor for the first time, or seeking a second opinion, asking the right questions can help you to understand important information about your cancer diagnosis.

Here are 10 questions to ask your doctor during a medical appointment, in order to better understand your diagnosis and cancer treatment options.

Can you tell me the purpose and accuracy of diagnostic testing?
An accurate diagnosis is critical because it is the basis upon which your treatment plan will be determined. For example, MRI and PET/CT scans help determine the precise location of the tumor and the extent of the disease to accurately plan treatment. Advanced genomic testing may help identify the cell mutations that may be matched to specific targeted therapy drugs designed to attack that those mutations. It is important to have access to these advanced diagnostic tests, as well as physicians experienced in performing them.

What does my diagnostic testing tell me?
The information you should receive from diagnostic tests includes:

  • Where the cancer originated
  • The size of the tumor
  • The stage of cancer and whether or not it has spread to the lymph nodes or other parts of the body.

What treatment options are available?
What do you recommend and why? Many types of cancer have a variety of treatment options available. Your doctor should be able to explain the potential benefits of each to help you understand your options, even if he or she doesn’t perform a specific treatment. For example, intraoperative radiation therapy (IORT) is an advanced technology available to cancers such as breast cancer, cervical cancer and pancreatic cancer. IORT may reduce treatment time for some patients by delivering radiation directly to the tumor site during surgery. Listen to what your doctor recommends for your treatment plan, but remember the final decision is up to you and your needs.

What happens if a treatment approach doesn’t work for me?
At any point, you should feel comfortable asking your doctor about the status of your treatment. When choosing a care team, you may want to consider doctors willing to try new therapies, depending on your response. Look for professionals who will tailor treatments to your specific diagnosis, and who are willing to pursue other options if treatment isn’t progressing as expected.

What are the side effects of treatment, and how often do your patients experience them?
No two people will have the exact same response to cancer treatment, and side effects may vary depending on what type of treatment you decide to pursue. Ask your doctor what side effects you might experience, so that you can plan ahead and focus on managing them to help you tolerate treatment and improve your quality of life.

How will you help me manage side effects?
Supportive care therapies—including nutritional support, naturopathic support, behavioral health, oncology rehabilitation, spiritual support and pain management—can help reduce side effects so you can stay strong and active and avoid treatment interruptions. Ask your doctor about incorporating some of these therapies into your treatment plan.

How many patients have you treated with my type and stage of cancer, and how successful have you been?
Don’t be afraid to ask how much experience your doctor has treating your type and stage of cancer and whether he/she is board-certified. You may also want to ask about his/her facility’s treatment results so you can see how successful they have been in treating your cancer type. Facilities aren’t required to publish their survival rates, but some facilities choose to do so.

Who will be involved in my care, how often will they meet and who is my main point of contact?
A care team including a surgical, medical and/or radiation oncologist; dietitian; naturopathic support provider; clinical nurse and medical advocate (often a nurse care manager) can ensure you get support for your entire well-being during treatment. If you don’t already have a team like this in place, talk to your doctor about assembling a multidisciplinary team. It’s also important to have a central point of contact available 24 hours a day, seven days a week, especially in an emergency.

Where will all my treatments, appointments, tests, etc., take place?
When looking for a treatment facility, consider the coordination and convenience of your treatment. Having appointments and procedures in one place can make treatment less stressful for you, and it may allow you to start treatment sooner.

How will you help me balance my cancer care with the demands of my normal life?
Your care team should adapt to your individual needs and personal values. A team of experienced doctors, clinicians, nurses, and insurance and financial experts should keep your priorities at the center of their work, to ensure you receive the best care possible in a way that works for you and your family. Talk to your doctor about your personal needs so that all aspects of your life are considered when choosing a treatment path.

Learn more about cancer-related pain and pain management.