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Questions to ask after a cancer diagnosis

Get started with this resource from the American Cancer Society

> Questions to ask my doctor about my cancer

The time after a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for many reasons.

During your first meeting with your oncologist, you might have a million questions, or maybe you’re not even sure where to begin.

“Almost everybody is overwhelmed at that point, so they can only process so much information. Those are normal feelings and emotions,” said Peggy Malone. As a nurse navigator at OSF HealthCare Saint Anthony Medical Center in Rockford, Peggy has sat with many people during their first oncology appointment to help them through that difficult time.

Understanding your diagnosis

One of the most important conversations to have early on is about your specific cancer.

“The doctor will sit down with them and actually show their scan images right on the screen so they can visualize where the cancer is located. And that we will be giving them more information about their specific type of cancer, because all cancer is different,” Peggy said.

You can learn things from your oncologist that you can’t learn anywhere else – where the cancer is inside your body and how this may impact your treatment, what kind of cancer you have and any other personal factors that could affect your treatment plan.

Education is a major focus, especially in the period immediately following a cancer diagnosis. You may notice that your providers repeatedly give you this information. That’s because they know that it can be difficult to absorb information when you’re under stress.

“We might be telling you this a couple of times, but most patients need to hear it a couple of times. We give them time to process, and keep coming back to things,” Peggy said.

You may have a nurse navigator, like Peggy, attend your first appointment with you. You can also consider:

  • Taking notes or recording the conversation on your phone, so you can go back to remember what your doctor said.
  • Bringing a loved one with you to listen or take notes. This person may attend in person or can listen over the phone, if needed.
  • Writing down your questions in advance, or using one of the conversation guides available through the American Cancer Society – such as this general guide or this page about your specific type of cancer.

Treatment options

Many people have questions not just about what treatments are available, but how those options will affect them.

Chemotherapy side effects are an especially common concern.

“The unknown is the scariest thing, so we try to clarify that and demystify it,” Peggy said.

And you can talk with your oncologist or nurse navigator about concerns that aren’t necessarily medical.

“Sometimes it’s just practical for patients, and that takes precedence. Maybe they don’t drive and they need to get here for treatments,” Peggy said.

If you have questions or concerns about insurance, transportation or other issues that might affect your ability to receive treatment, talk with your provider. They may be able to connect you with support staff or other services to help.

Next steps

The next steps after a cancer diagnosis are not always the same.

Depending on your circumstances, your provider may recommend more testing, such as imaging or biopsy, before developing a treatment plan.

Other times, you may be quickly scheduled for surgery or beginning treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation.

Whatever your situation, you should leave your appointment with a clear idea of what your next steps should be and whom to contact if you have any questions. That may be a navigator like Peggy or another person.

“Having that one person whose voice is familiar and who you know is a key portion of what we do,” Peggy said.

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: Cancer