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Questions to ask after a cancer diagnosis

The time after a cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming for many reasons. Either you’ve got a second opinion, or the diagnosis is clear beyond doubt. Now, what happens?

During your first meeting with your oncologist, you might have a million questions, or maybe you’re unsure 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, nurse navigator with OSF HealthCare.

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 with you and show you the scan images, so you can visualize where the cancer is located. And we will be giving you more information about your type and stage of cancer because all cancers are different,” Peggy said.

Here are some things you can learn from your oncologist that you can’t learn anywhere else:

  • What kind of cancer you have
  • Where the cancer is inside your body and how this may impact your treatment
  • If the cancer has spread
  • Any other factors that could affect your cancer treatment plan

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

Not sure where to start?

> Download our list of questions.

Your care team should make sure they’ve answered all of your questions about cancer.

“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 should also consider recording the meeting on your phone and bringing someone you trust to your appointment.

Preparing for the appointment with a list of questions will ensure you get answers to your concerns.

 Treatment options

Many people with cancer have questions about what treatments are available and how those options will affect them.

Chemotherapy side effects are a common concern. Chemotherapy is the use of strong medicines to kill cancer cells. Some people find that these powerful medicines affect them in different ways.

Your care team should work to find the best treatment for you, ensuring you understand all possibilities. Knowing what you’re dealing with helps you and your providers create a treatment plan you are comfortable with.

“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 need to get here for treatments,” Peggy said.

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

Next steps after a cancer diagnosis

The next steps after a cancer diagnosis are not always the same. Before developing a treatment plan, you might need more tests and procedures, such as imaging or biopsy.

You may be quickly scheduled for surgery or beginning treatment such as chemotherapy or radiation. Molecular testing is routinely done for certain targeted cancer treatments, often in pill form.

Immunotherapy treatments now provide significant responses for many types of cancer, and clinical trials might be an option, too.

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.

Last Updated: February 15, 2023

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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