Questions to Ask Your Health Care Provider

 

If your health care provider is not able or willing to answer these questions, you should think about finding another provider.  Remember to bring your binder, paper and a pen to take notes on what your health care provider says.  Your voice recorder and another person to listen to what the health care provider says (and to provide emotional support) can be an enormous support

Another helpful tool is to try visualizing what is being explained to you.  Ask the doctor to show you an illustration to help you grasp where the cancer is, how tests will be performed, and how treatment will proceed.  You can also use this illustration to help explain things to your family.

Also, try to verbalize what you heard; repeat to the doctor what you thought he or she said.  This provides an opportunity to clear up any communication problems.

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Doctors

 

Q:  Is the doctor board certified?  For information about the doctor’s education, training, certification, and years in practice, you can ask the doctor directly, call his or her office, or call your local medical society or osteopathic medical association.  You can also call your state board of medical examiners, or look in the Directory of Medical Specialists (in public libraries).  You can quickly find out if a doctor is board certified by calling 866-ASK-ABMS (275-2267), or through the ABMS website at www.abms.org and then click on “Who’s Certified.”  Verification is also available in the Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialties, which is published annually. The Directory can be found in many medical and public libraries. Written verification is available by contacting the individual specialty board in the physician’s field of practice.

Q:  What specialized training has the doctor had in treating the type of cancer you have?  During the past 12 months, how many patients has the doctor treated with cancers similar to yours?

Q: When is the doctor normally in his or her office (days and hours of the day)?

Q:  How can you reach the doctor during evenings and weekends

 

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Biopsies

 

Q:  What type of biopsy does the doctor recommend?

-  Incisional:  part of the tumor is cut out and looked at under a microscope      

-  Excisional:  the tumor is removed totally

-  Needle:  a needle is used to extract either fluid or tissue for microscopic analysis.  This is also called “aspiration biopsy” and can usually be done in the doctor’s office with a local or minimal anesthetic.

Q: What is a sentinel node biopsy? Is your doctor qualified to do it? Does she/he recommend it? Why or why not?

Q: What, specifically, did my biopsy show?  Ask the doctor for a copy of your pathology report.

Q: If there is a malignancy, how much time can I take to make up my mind on what type of treatment to have? 

Q: Is your doctor recommending axillary node dissection for me? Why or why not?

Q: Has cancer spread beyond the original site?

Q:  What stage is the cancer?  How was this determined?

 

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Further Tests

 

Q:  Are there any specific instructions to follow before or after the test?

Q:  How long will I be there?  Will I be able to drive myself home?

Q:  What are the risks in taking the tests?  What are the most likely complications?

Q:  Does my insurance company have to approve the test before it is done?

Q: Will the test hurt?  How long before I can resume my usual activities?

 

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Treatment Options

 

Q:  What are my treatment options, considering the type and extent of my cancer, my age, and my lifestyle?

Q:  What is the goal of the treatment?

Possible goals: 

~ Control growth of tumor

~ Cure or eradicate the disease

~ Increase comfort level (reduce pain, stimulate appetite, increase energy)

Q:  Can it be arranged for me to talk with someone who has been treated for this kind of cancer?

Q:  What type of doctors will be involved in treating me?  This team of doctors may consist of a medical oncologist, a surgeon, a radiation oncologist (sometimes referred to as a radiation therapist), oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, dieticians, and rehabilitative specialists.

Q:  Which treatments will provide me with the best chance of long-term survival and the highest quality of life?

Q: How do non-conventional treatments differ from standard medical treatments?

Q: How can I find out about non-conventional treatments?

For each treatment option:

Q:  Please explain what the treatment is. (Consider getting an illustration from the doctor.)

Q:  What are the short-term and long-term risks?

Q:  What are the treatment side effects, and what can I do to lessen or prevent these? (i.e., medication, nutritional support, exercise)

Q:  Do I need to restrict my diet or fluid intake?

Q:  Will my treatment make me prone to infections?  If so, what type of symptoms should I look for?

Q: What problems should I report to you?

Q:  Will the treatment hurt or be uncomfortable?  If so, how can I lessen or prevent this discomfort?

Q:  How long will I be in this treatment (weeks or months)? How often will I be treated?

Q:  If I opt for this treatment, what will my quality of life be like during and after treatment?  How will it affect my ability to work or to perform other activities that are necessary and important to me?

 

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Surgery

 

Q:  Why does your provider feel surgery is necessary for you?  Are there non-surgical alternatives?

Q:  Is there a less invasive way to do this surgery?

Q:  Please explain the surgery.  Request a diagram or illustration to help understand it better.

 Q: Which surgery does your provider think is better for you, lumpectomy or mastectomy?

Q: What is lymphedema? How can you protect yourself from it?

Q: What is reconstructive surgery? Can it be done in your case? Can it be arranged for you to be in touch with patients who have gone through it?

Q: How long does it take to resume normal activities after surgery?

 

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Medications

 

Q: What is this medicine supposed to do?

Q:  How and when will you know whether it is working?

Q:  How often and at what times should it be taken?

Q:  Does it matter if you take it on an empty stomach or with a meal?

Q:  Will this prescription create problems with the other prescription or over-the-counter medicine (including vitamins or minerals) you are already taking?

Q:  Where can you find printed material on this drug?

 

* Most of these questions came from the book, Teamwork. The Cancer Patient’s Guide to Talking with Your Doctor (accessible at www.canceradvocacy.org/assets/documents/teamwork-resource.pdf)