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May 12, 2020 • read
I’ve been diagnosed with cancer. What questions should I ask?
Very few of us expect to receive a cancer diagnosis. This sudden news can leave you feeling paralyzed — like you don’t know where to turn or what to do next. Even just wrapping your head around what your diagnosis means can be difficult since “cancer” is really a collection of different diseases. For some, asking the right questions helps them take an active role battling the disease. For others, knowing all the nitty gritty details can feel like it’s adding extra stress.
There’s no right or wrong way to navigate your cancer treatment. But if you’d prefer to be more informed, here’s a list of starter questions that will give you a well-rounded view of your case.
What is my exact diagnosis and how was it determined?
Every cancer diagnosis is unique, but cancers themselves can be divided into a few categories:
There are over 100 different diseases that can be classified as cancer, and they affect all parts of the body.
Knowing exactly what type of cancer you have is the first step in becoming an informed patient. From there you can research the best ways to take care of yourself, what treatments are recommended, and what clinical trials you might be eligible for.
Your doctor may have diagnosed you via biopsy, tumor removal, physical exam or imaging tests. This information is important to have on hand as well, as you might need to undergo further testing before you begin treatment.
What is the stage of my cancer?
The “stage” of your cancer refers to how advanced it is at the time of diagnosis. Where your cancer is located, how far it’s spread, and whether any other areas of the body are affected are all important details.
The stage of your cancer influences your treatment plans and your chances of recovery. Like most diseases, cancer is more easily treated if caught early. Knowing your stage can help your doctor set expectations for your treatment roadmap.
How can I optimize my health from now until my treatment date? What risk factors can I eliminate from my life?
Since cancer treatment can take a toll on your body, it’s helpful to be fit and healthy before the process begins. Some lifestyle habits are risk factors for developing or accelerating cancer. Eliminating these risk factors can slow the progression of your disease, and help you feel a lot better throughout your treatment.
Some steps you can take to lower your risk factors are:
- Quitting smoking, and avoiding secondhand smoke.
- Using sunscreen when exposed to UV rays.
- Avoiding alcohol, or drinking in moderation. Women are advised to consume less than 10 drinks a week, and men should aim for under 15. Have some days of the week where you don’t drink at all.
- Eating a healthy, balanced diet. Minimize processed foods, especially processed meats. Emphasize whole plant foods that have vitamins, minerals and fiber.
- Keeping a healthy weight. Low-impact exercise can help with this, but don’t push yourself and consult with your doctor on a safe workout regimen.
Getting rid of these risk factors will boost your health and help you gain strength before your treatments begin. Patients who take an active role in their health are shown to have fewer side-effects and better outcomes overall. Consult with your doctor to discuss which risk factors you can eliminate from your life, and create a safe plan to do so.
What treatment options are there for my type and stage of cancer? Which do you recommend for me?
The most common types of treatments are surgery, radiation and systemic therapy (like chemotherapy or targeted medication). Your doctor may suggest one or a combination of these treatments.
Since no two diagnoses are alike, your doctor will determine what course of treatment makes most sense given your personal health factors.
Are there any clinical trials I qualify for?
Diagnosing and treating cancer is incredibly complex because each patient brings unique factors to the table. Because of this complexity, hospitals and research labs conduct thousands of clinical trials each year aimed at advancing therapies for specific types of cancers. These clinical trial therapies are sometimes more effective than the regular standard of care a hospital might provide.
If you’re interested in these trials, ask your doctor if there are any taking place at their hospital, and if you’d be eligible to participate. You can expand your search as well. Try searching through these sites to find out about trials throughout North America:
You can also reach out to a patient navigator to help you search for trials that apply to you.
Should I get a second opinion? How do I do that?
A cancer diagnosis is a very emotional, confusing time. It can be reassuring to see another doctor to confirm you were properly diagnosed and that your treatment plan makes sense.
You might want a second opinion if you were diagnosed with a rare form of cancer, if you want greater clarity into your diagnosis, or if you’d like to look into a greater range of treatments. Your doctor shouldn’t have a problem with you seeking a second opinion.
Ask your doctor to refer you to a colleague who isn’t closely connected with them. If they’re unable, you can contact a medical society and ask for a recommendation. Ask for an appointment with an oncologist at a different medical institution from the one you’re currently with, as you’ll be cared for by different attendants and pathologists.
Ask for a copy of your medical file to be sent along to your second doctor. Make sure that any test results and biopsy samples are included. You can also ask for a referral letter from your doctor. A patient navigator is a great help in this process.
You can get a second opinion online as well if time and distance are obstacles. We offer oncologist appointments over computer, tablet or smartphone. Appointments are usually confirmed within 72 hours, so you don’t have to wait to set your mind at ease.
Can I speak with a patient navigator?
A patient navigator is someone who is trained to help cancer patients as they negotiate their treatment. There are lots of emotional and logistical struggles that come up when undergoing cancer treatment. A patient navigator can provide essential support throughout your journey.
A navigator may accompany you to your treatments, suggest questions to ask your doctor, assist you with scheduling appointments, and help you understand symptoms and side-effects you might be experiencing. They can also help you attain financial and legal support if required. Most of all, a navigator is a knowledgeable and empathetic shoulder to lean on during this tough time.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can make you feel like your head is spinning. Asking questions about your disease can help you feel empowered, and can help you weather your treatment with fewer side-effects. How much or how little information you want is up to you. Know that your diagnosis is unique, and not all the information you read online will apply to you. There’s a lot of steps you can take to put power back in your own hands, and optimize your health even as you’re going through treatment.
If you’d like a second opinion on your diagnosis, or want to speak to a patient navigator, click here to read more about our virtual oncology options. You can see a Canadian physician from the comfort of your own home, on a schedule that works for you.