Questions to Ask

Being educated and informed will help you make the best decisions about your cancer treatment. Get all the information you can as early as possible concerning your evaluation, treatment, and possible side effects. The sooner you know about side effects and possible treatments, the more likely you are to protect yourself against them, or manage them more effectively.

Your doctor and nurse are your best sources of information, but you must remember to ask questions. There is no such thing as a dumb question. Don’t be afraid to ask anything that is on your mind. To make the most of your opportunities to learn from your health care providers, read as much as you can and make a list of questions before each appointment. Also, ask family, friends, and your support team to help you remember the questions. These approaches will help you talk more effectively with your doctor or nurse. Finally, you or your caregiver should consider taking notes during your visit to ensure you remember what you learned.

The following are some questions, grouped by topic, which you may wish to ask your nurse or physician:

Your Cancer
  • Do you typically treat patients with my diagnosis?
  • What stage is my cancer?
  • Is there anything unique about my cancer that makes my prognosis better or worse?
  • Should I get a second opinion?
Cancer Treatment
  • What is the goal of treatment?
  • To cure my cancer or stop it from growing?
  • What are my treatment options?
  • How can each treatment option help me achieve my goal of therapy?
  • What risks or potential side effects are associated with each treatment?
  • What research studies (“clinical trials”) are available?
  • Are there any clinical trials that are right for me?
  • How long will I receive treatment, how often, and where?
  • How will it be given?
  • How will I know if the treatment is working?
  • How might a disruption in my chemotherapy dose or timing affect my results?
  • How and when will I be able to tell whether the treatment is working?
  • What are the names of all the drugs I will be taking?
  • Can I talk with another of your patients who has received this treatment?
  • Are there any resources or Web sites you recommend for more information?
Tests
  • What types of lab tests will I need?
  • Will I need x-rays and scans?
  • Can you explain the results of my complete blood count (CBC)?
  • Are there tests for the genetic make-up of my cancer?
  • Will I benefit from having my cancer evaluated for its genetic make-up?
  • How frequently will I get the tests?
Side Effects of Treatment
  • What possible side effects should I prepare for?
  • When might they start?
  • Will they get better or worse as my treatment goes along?
  • How can I prepare for them or lessen their impact?
  • Are there treatments that can help relieve the side effects? What are they? Do you usually recommend or prescribe them?
  • Which risks are most serious?
  • Will I require blood transfusions? Why?
  • How can I best monitor myself for complications related to either my disease or my treatment?
Protecting Against Infection
  • Will my type of chemotherapy put me at risk for a low white blood cell count and infection?
  • Can I help protect myself against infection right from the start of chemotherapy, instead of waiting until problems develop?
  • Am I at special risk for infection?
  • What are the signs of infection?
  • How serious is an infection?
  • How long will I be at risk for infection?
  • What should I do if I have a fever?
  • How are infections treated?
Daily Activities
  • How will my cancer treatment affect my usual activities?
  • Will I be able to work?
  • Will I need to stay in the hospital?
  • Will I need someone to help me at home?
  • Will I need help taking care of my kids?
  • Are there any activities I should avoid during my chemotherapy?
What to Expect After Treatment
  • What happens after I complete my treatment?
  • How can I best continue to monitor myself for complications related to either my disease or my treatment?
  • What kind of lab tests will I need?
  • How frequently should I get those lab tests?
  • What types of x-rays and scans will I need?
  • How often do I need to come in for checkups?
  • When will you know if I am cured?
  • What happens if my disease comes back?

Frequently Asked Questions

What is cancer?

Cancer is a group of more than 100 different diseases characterized by uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. If the spread is not controlled, it can result in death.

Normally, cells divide to produce more cells only when the body needs them. If cells divide when new ones are not needed, they form a mass of excess tissue, called a tumor. Tumors can be benign (not cancer) or malignant (cancer). The cells in malignant tumors can invade and damage nearby tissues and organs. Cancer cells can also break away from a malignant tumor and travel through the bloodstream or the lymphatic system to form new tumors in other parts of the body.

What causes cancer?

Cancer is caused by both external (chemicals, radiation and viruses) and internal (hormones, immune conditions and inherited mutations) factors. Causal factors may act together or in a sequence to initiate or promote carcinogenesis. Ten or more years often pass between exposures or mutations and detectable cancer.

What are the signs and symptoms of cancer?

Cancer often causes symptoms that you can watch for. The word CAUTION can remind you of the most common warning signs of cancer:

  • Change in bowel or bladder habits
  • A sore that does not heal
  • Unusual bleeding or discharge
  • Thickening or lump in the breast or any other part of the body
  • Indigestion or difficulty swallowing
  • Obvious change in a wart or mole
  • Nagging cough or hoarseness

These symptoms are not always warning signs of cancer. They can also be caused by less serious conditions. It is important to see a doctor if you have any of these symptoms. Only a doctor can make a diagnosis. Don’t wait to feel pain because early cancer usually does not cause pain.

A biopsy is the only sure way to know whether a medical problem is cancer. In a biopsy, the doctor removes a sample of tissue. The tissue is examined under a microscope to check for cancer cells.

Can cancer be prevented?

Yes, since some external factors can be controlled. About 90 percent of the 800,000 skin cancers that were diagnosed in 1995 could have been prevented by protection from the sun’s rays. All cancers caused by cigarette smoking and heavy use of alcohol could be prevented completely.

Diets high in fruits, vegetables, and fiber may reduce the incidence of some types of cancers. Regular screening and self-exams can detect cancers of the breast, tongue, mouth, colon, rectum, cervix, prostate, testis and skin at an early stage, when treatment is more likely to be successful. These types of cancers account for more than half of all new cases.

How is a person's cancer treated?

Cancer is treated with surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radioactive substances or immunotherapy. The doctor may use one method or a combination of methods. The choice of treatment depends on the type and location of the cancer, whether the disease has spread, the patient’s age and general health, and other factors.

Many cancer patients take part in clinical trials (research studies) testing new treatment methods. Such studies are designed to improve cancer treatment.

Who gets cancer?

Anyone can get cancer. Since incidence rises with age, most cases affect adults in mid-life or older. Among children ages 1 to 14, cancer causes more deaths in the United States than any other disease. In the 1980s, there were more than 4.5 million cancer deaths, almost 9 million new cancer cases, and some 12 million people under medical care for cancer.

How many people alive today have ever had cancer?

More than 8 million Americans alive today have a history of cancer, 5 million diagnosed five or more years ago. Most of these 5 million can be considered cured, while others still have evidence of cancer. “Cured” means that a patient has no evidence of disease and has the same life expectancy as a person who never had cancer.

How many people will die?

More than 8 million Americans alive today have a history of cancer, 5 million diagnosed five or more years ago. Most of these 5 million can be considered cured, while others still have evidence of cancer. “Cured” means that a patient has no evidence of disease and has the same life expectancy as a person who never had cancer.

What is the national cancer death rate?

There has been a steady rise in the cancer mortality rate in the United States in the last half-century. The major cause of this increase has been lung cancer. But starting from 1990 to 1995, the death rate declined by 3 percent and this trend is expected to continue into the next century. Death rates for many major cancer sites has leveled off or declined over the past 50 years. If lung cancer deaths were excluded, cancer mortality would have declined 14 percent between 1950 and 1990.

How many people are surviving cancer?

In the early 1900s, few cancer patients had any hope of long-term survival. In the 1930s, fewer than one in five victims were alive five years after treatment. In the 1940s, it was one in four, and in the 1960s, one in three. Currently, about 500,000 Americans, or four of 10 patients who get cancer will be alive five years after diagnosis.