Newly diagnosed with cancer? 5 essential questions to ask your doctor


by Maria Isabel Juarez, MD

Apr 6, 2023

As an oncologist, I understand how overwhelming it can be to receive a cancer diagnosis. The news can make you anxious, uncertain, confused—and scared. While life may not feel the same the minute you first hear the "C" word, these wide-ranging emotions are common and normal, and it’s important to know you are not alone.

Your doctor is there to help you make sense of your diagnosis. With the proper guidance and support from your healthcare team, you can feel confident making informed decisions about your treatment plan.

5 questions to ask your oncologist

Here are five questions to ask your doctor when you are first diagnosed with cancer:

1. What type of cancer do I have?

Cancer usually gets its name based on the location of the organ or tissues in your body where the cancer forms. Identifying the kind of cancer you have is the first step in determining your treatment plan.

2. Do you know the stage of my cancer and what the stage means for me?

Staging is a way to help your doctor decide the best treatment plan and, in some cases, develop a prognosis. Additional tests may be needed to clarify how far your cancer has advanced and guide strategies to treat it based on your situation. Testing may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Imaging tests
  • Biopsies

3. What are my treatment options?

Your doctor will discuss your various treatment options to help determine which is best for you. They could include:

As you move forward with a care plan, you will want to know which treatment your doctor recommends and why, and understand each option's benefits, risks and goals.

4. What are the possible risks of treatment and side effects?

Cancer and its treatments can cause side effects. It's essential to be aware of them so you’re prepared for what may come next. Your doctor can explain what side effects to expect and how severe they might be, and help you map out a plan to prevent or manage them.

5. What can I do to take care of myself during treatment?

Patients often want to know how long they have been living with cancer. But wondering about what you could have done differently if you had known sooner is not going to change your diagnosis. I think it's more beneficial to ask: What can I do now to stay as healthy as possible before, during and after treatment?

Depending upon your cancer type and treatment plan, your doctor may recommend lifestyle changes, such as exercise, diet modifications or avoiding certain activities.

Conversations about your prognosis, the availability of clinical trials, or the need for a second opinion may also be on your list. Remember, there's no such thing as a "stupid" question. If it's important to you, it's important to your doctor.

Tips for communicating with your doctor

When it comes to coping with a cancer diagnosis, everyone is different. My years of practice have shown me that it often helps to digest what can feel like a deluge of details in small pieces.

Take in information in the way that suits you—not your family or friends—and share those preferences with your caregivers and healthcare team.

Consider these simple ways to improve your communication with your doctor:

  • Write down your questions before your appointment. Ask the most important questions first.
  • Take notes during your appointment or bring a family member or friend for support. You can also use an audio recorder or app on your smartphone to record and recall your conversation, but be sure and ask your doctor's permission first to maintain trust.
  • If you don't understand something about your diagnosis, treatment or care instructions, ask your doctor to repeat or rephrase the information until you do.

Living well with cancer

It’s essential to understand that a cancer diagnosis is a marathon, not a sprint. The answers you may seek today aren't always available or necessarily written in stone—especially during those initial visits with your doctor.

Fortunately, along with your care team, there are patient navigators, social workers, support groups and other healthcare professionals specializing in cancer care. These resources can provide emotional, practical and financial support to guide you and your loved ones as you navigate and take an active role in your cancer journey.

We're here to help you every step of the way. Find cancer care and support near you today.

About the Author

Maria Isabel Juarez, MD, is an internal medicine physician and medical oncologist. She is also the medical director of the Baylor Scott & White Charles A. Sammons Cancer Centers in Waxahachie and Duncanville.

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