You might be wondering what to expect from your first oncology appointment. Thinking of the right questions to ask your oncologist about your diagnosis, or what to ask your doctor about cancer treatment can be an added pressure at a difficult time.
So we’ve compiled some key questions for your first cancer appointment, to help you make sense of living with cancer.
Talking to your doctor can be hard at the best of times. You might feel embarrassed talking about personal health problems, or maybe you find it tough to get all your questions answered. But when your appointment has something to do with cancer, things could feel even more daunting – especially if you’ve only just been diagnosed.
However, a little preparation beforehand can help you to beat the “mind blank” brought on by nerves and emotions, and get more out of your appointment. We’ve done some research in the online cancer community and come up with the best questions to ask your oncologist at your first appointment.
The list could be endless, of course – but we’ve narrowed it down to make things a little bit less overwhelming. It might help you to write down the questions you like and take them with you to your appointment, along with some extra paper to take notes.
Click or scroll to read more about each suggestion:
- What type of cancer do I have?
- Are there genetic factors that might affect my family?
- What lifestyle factors might help me?
- What support services are available?
- What are my treatment options and which would you recommend?
- What is my prognosis/chance of recovery?
- Read our tips for just “getting the words out” when you feel overwhelmed
1. What type of cancer do I have?
This one should really be covered unless your doctor is feeling particularly distracted, but it’s good to get as much detail as you need. Knowing the specific type, location and stage of your cancer will help you to get more helpful support and information. For example, hearing that you have “lung cancer” might not give you as much information as knowing that you have “mesothelioma in your lung”, (which, in 80% of cases, is caused by asbestos – not smoking). If your doctor tells you what stage your cancer is, try to make sure they explain what that stage actually means and how that affects your life.
2. Are there genetic factors that might affect my family?
If you’ve been diagnosed with a type of cancer that has a genetic risk factor, you might want to let other members of your family know so that they can get tested. For example, it’s common for families to share the BRCA gene, which increases the risk of women developing breast and ovarian cancer.
3. What lifestyle changes might help me before, during or after treatment?
Aside from stopping smoking, and being sun safe, there are other things you can do to make life easier while you’re undergoing cancer treatment. It may be that you could exercise a little more, lose some extra weight, or change the way you eat slightly. These changes could help you to have more energy or boost your immune system – both of which are helpful while you’re going through treatments that take a toll on your body.
Another key lifestyle change has to do with working and employment. Your ability to work during treatment will vary widely depending on your type, stage and treatment plan, as well as what you do for a living. You may be able to carry on working as normal if your job doesn’t involve too much strenuous activity, or your doctor may recommend you take some leave to rest properly. Whatever your situation, it’s worth having the conversation with your oncologist so they can make recommendations that are personalised to you and your needs.
4. What support services are there to help me and my family through this?
Most people would be able to name one or two cancer support organisations who can help you cope with your diagnosis. However, your oncologist is part of a network of specialists, and should be able to advise you on more specific support for your particular type of cancer, as well as more local services like support groups and meetups.
5. What are my treatment options? What would you recommend and why?
A lot of our readers have told us that they were surprised to find out they have a choice in what treatment they receive for cancer. If you’re used to going to the doctor, telling them what’s wrong and just getting a prescription, hearing you have options could be weird or unsettling – after all, it feels like a big responsibility for someone who doesn’t have a medical degree! But being able to choose your own treatment is really important when most of the options (chemo, radiotherapy, surgery) are major medical procedures that will put your body through a lot.
When you’re making decisions about your own medical care, it’s important that your doctor clearly explains the different options available to you, and what each one would mean for your daily life and potential recovery. If your doctor simply recommends something and you don’t feel sure about it, try to ask them some of these follow-up questions:
- What does that treatment involve?
- What is the goal of the treatment? Is it to eliminate the cancer, help me feel better, or both?
- How long does the treatment course last?
- What are the common side effects?
Getting this information could help you to feel more in control, and you’ll be able to make a more informed decision and prepare for any side effects you might experience.
6. What is my prognosis/chance of recovery?
This can be a scary question to ask, and the answer might be difficult to hear. However, if it is important to you to know an estimated timescale, it’s a good question to ask. Discussing it with your oncologist in person might be easier to cope with than searching online later and worrying about what you find on your own. You might feel hesitant to ask in case you become overwhelmed with emotion, but your doctor will have helped many other patients through difficult news, and should support you with any reaction you have.
Tips for speaking out when you’re lost for words
Whether you’re naturally confident or a little more reserved, chances are you’ll be finding it difficult to process the news that you have cancer. Your first appointment may feel surreal or too much to handle, and getting all the information you need could feel like an added pressure.
If you’re feeling vulnerable, you may find it hard to talk, so it might help you to write down some of the questions above before the appointment when you’re feeling a little calmer. Then you can hand them to your doctor if you find it gets too much to say out loud.
If you have someone to come with you into the appointment, they might be able to help by going through your written list for you.
Making notes is also a good idea, so that you can go over the information later when you’re back at home feeling a little more comfortable.
Finally, it’s important to remember that it’s your right to ask questions. If your oncologist doesn’t explain things properly, or makes you feel rushed or uncomfortable about getting the information you need, that isn’t okay. In that situation, it’s entirely reasonable for you to ask for more of your oncologist’s time, assert yourself and your right to be fully informed about your condition. Do not leave until you're clear and understand everything you asked about, and if necessary seek the advice of another doctor.
Most people have no idea what to expect at your first oncology appointment. Your doctor is likely to have a lot of experience with patients like yourself, who are hearing bad news and worried about what’s going to happen next. With this in mind, there are some key pieces of information that your doctor will share with you as part of their usual appointment routine.
However, if you want to feel like you’ve covered the basics, and are feeling up to asking some questions, try thinking about the six main areas above, and hopefully, you’ll feel a little bit more informed after your appointment. Remember, there is no such thing as a silly question.
We hope your first oncology appointment goes as well as possible, and that you’re able to get the information that can help you to feel more in control of your cancer.
If you have any more useful questions for people attending their first oncology appointment, we would really appreciate hearing them – please feel free to share them with us and our whole community, on our Facebook page, our Twitter, or by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.