New cancer diagnosis? 5 questions to ask your doctor

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J. Rob Headrick, M.D., thoracic surgeon, CHI Memorial Chest and Lung Cancer Center

Few people are prepared for a cancer diagnosis. Hearing the words ‘you have cancer’ can bring a range of emotions, thoughts and worries. No matter the type of cancer or the stage, there are a few questions that can help you clarify the direction of your care, ease fears and provide a sense of control through what is an often-confusing and complicated process.

1.      “Who is going to be my quarterback?”

Determining the leader who will guide you through the treatment and help you make key decisions about your care is the first priority. The physician who gave you the diagnosis may not be the person who will ultimately be responsible for the direction of your care. The field of cancer care is changing rapidly, and it’s critical to choose a physician who not only specializes in your specific type of cancer but is also passionate about the latest treatments and technologies that will help you win the battle against this disease.

2.      “What is the timeline for beginning treatment?”

Two weeks from diagnosis to treatment is a reasonable goal, although it sometimes takes longer. After diagnosis, there are often many tests, imaging studies and biopsies needed to make an accurate diagnosis. During these early weeks of testing, you will need to dedicate a significant amount of time and make arrangements to your schedule to keep this process moving. Unless you set a timeline, it’s easy for the days and weeks to pass without a clear understanding of the next steps. That’s why it’s important to talk about when treatment will start from the very beginning. It will help hold the medical system accountable for acting in a timely manner and provide greater peace of mind for you and your family.

3.      “What is the detailed name and stage of my tumor?”

This is a question that won’t be answered immediately but is nonetheless very important to keep in mind. Knowing the exact name of your tumor will allow you to more accurately discuss treatment options and put the stage of disease into perspective. Understanding if your cancer is in an early stage, middle of the road, or late stage will drastically impact the course and nature of your treatment. This detailed information should be determined in the initial two-week timeline.  

4.      “Where will I be receiving treatment?”

When you select a physician to lead your cancer team, you’re also making a decision about the medical center where you’ll receive treatment. Not every hospital or treatment center does every specialty well. Cancer specialists are generally affiliated with one system, meaning you’ll interact with that system regularly throughout your treatment – whether it’s for routine blood work, imaging studies to help gauge the effectiveness of treatment, or provide hospital-based care if needed. If surgery is a likely part of your treatment plan, don’t leave the office before knowing where you will have your operation.

5.      “What can I do?”

Most people are relieved to hear that they can do a lot when it comes to preparing for cancer treatment. Although there are many things that will be out of your control, it’s important to focus on what you can control. The first thing I recommend is making a change to your diet, choosing foods that will support your immune system and help you prepare nutritionally for the treatment to come. If you don’t exercise regularly, it’s time to start. For those with lung cancer, activating and strengthening the diaphragm muscles is critical to an optimal recovery. Because your immune system will take a hit with treatment, be diligent in washing and minimizing your exposure to germs. Lastly, now is the time to identify the people – whether it’s family, friends or coworkers – that you can lean on and who will support you during this fight.

For anyone facing a cancer diagnosis, the first reaction is nearly always a feeling of helplessness – and it’s an understandable feeling. I encourage anyone diagnosed with cancer to take an active role – to ask questions, do their research and advocate for the most advanced treatment options. I always remind my patients that they have knowledge at their fingertips and a say so in their team and treatment plan. That’s why choosing the right team and having these basic questions answered is so important. It’s these details that will help you and your family make informed decisions and receive the care that’s right for you.

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