Any medical diagnosis can be difficult to come to terms with. Especially when that diagnosis is cancer. Because cancer care—and the nature of cancer itself—is so complex, you might not know what questions to ask your healthcare team when you’re diagnosed. Not to mention the fact that you might be in a state of shock when you receive the diagnosis, so taking in important information can be difficult.
Kimberly Sexton, a palliative medicine nurse navigator at Henry Ford Health, works with cancer patients every day. She knows the questions they typically have and the topics that often cause confusion. Here, she provides insight on the questions cancer patients and their families should ask their healthcare team to better understand their care.
1. What is the type and stage of the cancer?
This is an important first question to help you build knowledge around your diagnosis. Knowing what type of cancer you have, the stage it is thought to be, and your doctor’s opinion on your condition can help you gain clarity and may help ease fears and uncertainty.
“People who are newly diagnosed with cancer often have fears about death and dying,” says Sexton. “It’s scary – but the more accurate the information you have, the more you can put your diagnosis into perspective.”
At initial diagnosis, doctors might not know the exact stage of your cancer or whether it has spread. Oftentimes, additional testing, procedures or surgery are needed, which will help determine the precise stage of the cancer. Many cancers are treatable and often curable, so it’s important to get the facts from your healthcare team. By getting a feel for your doctors’ thoughts on the cancer, you can think about what you want to do as far as treatment is concerned and the best course of action for you.
2. What are my treatment options?
Will you need surgery? Chemotherapy? Radiation? Or all three? Asking about your treatment options will help you prepare and plan for what life might look like while undergoing treatment.
“Cancer care and treatment often require many different disciplines of medical care,” says Sexton. “A lot of times I’ve found that not only do patients want to know their treatment options, but they’ll tell you right out, ‘I’m not going through a bunch of chemotherapy,’ or ‘I want everything and then some.’”
It’s also important to know what clinical trials are available for your particular cancer, as clinical trials give patients access to new drugs, which can be especially beneficial for patients who have diseases that don’t have great outcomes. You are ultimately in the driver’s seat when it comes to your care. Having open conversations with your healthcare team—and even seeking a second opinion to see what other doctors offer treatment-wise—can help determine what is right for you.
3. How will treatment affect my life?
Fatigue, nausea, hair loss, brain fog—people can experience a range of side effects from cancer treatment. That said, there are more options than ever before to help ease side effects. “Chemotherapy used to be thought of as poison, with people sick for days and days,” says Sexton. “But we’ve come a long way within the past 20 years. We have medications you can take even before you start chemotherapy to help with potential side effects.
“Plus, here at Henry Ford, we have an entire integrative services team with nutritionists, psychologists and physical therapists to help you feel as comfortable as possible and to ease side effects from cancer treatment.”
4. What is the goal of treatment?
“Sometimes, patients think the goal of treatment is to get rid of cancer, but depending on the type and stage, that might not be the goal,” says Sexton. “In some cases, the goal could also be to slow the progression of the disease. Today, thanks to medical advances, there are some cancers that people can manage and live with for years.”
5. Who can I rely on for support?
Navigating your diagnosis, treatments, doctor visits—and just a new, sometimes disrupted way of life—is tough. “I’ve found that many people don’t know about the resources they have access to,” says Sexton. “Here, nurse navigators have a huge depth of knowledge. Use them. For example, did you know you can have home care? Or did you know we have psycho-oncologists and therapists to help you deal with the mental health aspect of undergoing cancer? Or did you know you can use Game On Cancer to help pay for medications or medical bills? There are so many valuable resources out there. You don’t have to do this alone.”
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Whether you are going through cancer treatment or serve a loved one as a caregiver, there are resources to help you. Visit henryford.com/cancer to learn more.
Kimberly Sexton, RN, is a palliative care nurse navigator at Henry Ford Health. She sees patients at Henry Ford Cancer--Detroit.