Being diagnosed with cancer is often a scary and confusing experience, and immediately upon diagnosis, it can be hard what to know to ask your doctor about your diagnosis and their experience treating other patients. Some people may prefer to take a more trusting and fully hands-off approach to their cancer treatment—which is completely valid—but if you’re the kind of patient who prefers to handle their diagnosis and treatment more head-on, here are a few good questions you might consider asking your doctor to get a better sense of what you might expect your treatment and experience with them to be like over the next months, years, or however long your journey might take.
What’s your approach?
Every individual doctor is going to have a different philosophy as to how they tackle cancer diagnoses in their patients. Some doctors might be very aggressive with their treatments upfront and prioritize long-term survival, whereas others might take a less aggressive approach and prioritize the shorter-term quality of life. Another way to phrase the question might be “what do you consider success?” In addition, some doctors prefer certain kinds of treatments such as surgery or immunotherapy—perhaps because they specialize in it—whereas others might specialize less, or be open to different approaches such as alternative medicines as part of a treatment regimen. There are often no “wrong” answers to this question, but it’s important to ensure your expectations and priorities are aligned with your doctor’s to ensure you will not be frustrated with the course of your treatment.
How long will the treatment be?
It’s important to level-set with your doctor about how long they expect your treatment to be, and how time-intensive they expect it to be as well, to ensure you can plan and prepare—both logistically and mentally—for the course of your treatment. With most cancers, this may be a guess rather than a certainty as treatment plans may change and shift over time due to the reaction of your disease to treatment, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask the question. Your doctor will most likely at least have a short-term answer to this question, which will at least allow you to strategize and communicate with your job or school, if applicable, to make appropriate arrangements for your unique situation.
What are the side effects?
Similar to the above, it is important to address the possible side effects of your cancer treatment. Some treatments, such as surgery or chemo, may cause severe adverse side effects or cause long recovery times. As such, it’s important to understand how severely your short-term quality of life—or even your ability to do activities beyond recovering from your treatment—may be impacted by your cancer treatment regimen. This is the kind of question that may feel scary to ask, but it’s very inconvenient to be surprised by. In addition, if there is some side effect your doctor is expecting that is intolerable to you, this might be a good time to discuss your priorities and possible alternatives. In any case, it’s always better to ask this question upfront so you can plan ahead.
What do you expect my prognosis will be?
This question will oftentimes begin extremely uncomfortable conversations, particularly if your particular cancer doesn’t provide a good prognosis. However, unfortunately, it’s perhaps the most important question to ask. While many kinds of cancer are very treatable nowadays, there are other kinds that are less so. Hearing an answer to this question that is unfavorable may be traumatizing, but you do need to know this answer. It’s also perfectly possible that your doctor may not have all the answers, given the fact that treatment hasn’t been attempted so it’s unclear how your cancer will respond, but even knowing that is good, even if it’s inconclusive.
All in all, entering into a cancer treatment regimen and a relationship with a doctor to administer it isn’t something that should be taken lightly. No matter the type, cancer is a serious disease that will likely affect your quality of life at best and your lifespan at worst. Make sure to ask all your questions upfront to ensure you’re not left wondering or blindsided down the road.