Questions Every Cancer Patient Should Ask

Bob Riter is the retired Executive Director of the Cancer Resource Center. His articles about living with cancer appeared regularly in the Ithaca Journal and on OncoLink. He can be reached at

A collection of Bob’s columns, When Your Life is Touched by Cancer: Practical Advice and Insights for Patients, Professionals, and Those Who Care, is available in bookstores nationwide and through online retailers such as Amazon and Barnes & Noble. All royalties from the sale of the book come to the Cancer Resource Center.

Question #1: Can you repeat that?

Getting diagnosed with cancer is like walking through a hurricane. Winds are swirling all around and you’re just trying to stay on your feet. It’s difficult to remain clear-headed and absorb all that’s being told to you. No one expects you to hear and understand everything.

I encourage patients (and family members) to ask physicians and other health professionals to repeat themselves if something is unclear. If you still don’t understand, ask about other resources that might be helpful. Often there’s a nurse, patient navigator, or other individual who’s especially good and patient at answering questions and explaining what’s ahead.

Some people learn best from written information and/or diagrams. Your health care providers and cancer support organizations can provide that material.

Question #2: How long can I safely wait before beginning treatment?

Many people feel pressured to begin cancer treatment immediately after diagnosis. In most cases, it’s quite reasonable to wait for a few weeks. This provides the opportunity to seek second opinions if you desire, or time to go ahead with that long-planned vacation.

A few cancers are especially aggressive and do require the initiation of treatment within a few days. Ask your doctor how long you can safely wait before beginning treatment.

Question #3: Which doctor is coordinating my care?

It’s common to have multiple doctors involved in your treatment. It’s helpful to have one doctor serving as the captain of your ship. Ask your doctors who’s coordinating your care.

If you suddenly feel ill or have another problem, you’ll want to know which doctor to call. This might be clear if the problem is related to your cancer or cancer treatment, but what if the problem is probably not cancer related. Who should you call then?

Confusion also exists when your treatment is completed and you’re transitioning back to your primary care physician. It’s not always obvious who is going to order your mammograms or other routine tests. Be sure to ask.

These three questions sound simple, but they aren’t asked nearly enough. It’s more than OK to ask – it’s encouraged!

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.

Click here for all of Bob’s columns



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