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Published on March 10, 2020

patient and physician talking in hospital

What Questions Should You Ask Your Oncologist?

When patients diagnosed with cancer meets an oncologist for the first time, they likely have many questions. Yet others see the meeting as a giant wall of overwhelming information, and they don’t ask as many as they planned.

"There are no right or wrong questions," said medical oncologist Sreekanth Donepudi, MD, MPH, Avera Cancer Institute at Pierre. "I would recommend that patients prepare as best they can, and they often have more success if they do so with a loved one."

Here are some of the questions Donepudi most often hears, and the reasons why he recommends cancer patients consider them when they prepare for an oncology meeting.

Question: What stage is my cancer and what does that mean?

Why it helps: When doctors find your cancer is important and can determine how treatment will take place. "If found earlier, we can look at treatment toward eliminating the cancer or curing it," said Donepudi. "It’s an opportunity for patients to get the facts and consider the treatment options they may have."

Question: Can I get a second opinion and how do I do that?

Why it helps: "Patients should not worry because oncologists are not offended," he said. "We’re here to help and answer all questions."

Question: What are treatment options and how long do they last?

Why it helps: Surgery, chemotherapy and radiation oncology treatments, or combinations of all three, may be parts of a patient’s treatment plan. Some will unfold over six months while some may take a year. Other approaches might not begin for some time as further testing occurs. "Treatment goes hand-in-hand with our goals, and if we’re looking at an early stage cancer, our goal is curing it," Donepudi said. "If it is a later stage, our goals may change to include extension of life or help with symptoms."

Question: Can I participate in a clinical trial?

Why it helps: Learning about all possible options, such as clinical trials and genetic testing for cancer, is the best approach. "Over the last five years, we almost always use genetic testing to help patients," said Donepudi. "There are more and more clinical trials for many cancers now as well. Asking about them could give you more information or options for treatment. If you don’t understand any part, just ask and we can explain it."

Question: Where can I receive my treatment?

Why it helps: Getting more details on the basics – who, what, when, where and why – will always benefit you. "Avera Cancer Institute facilities continue to strive to offer comprehensive therapies at as many locations as possible, to lower the stress of travel for patients," Donepudi said. "Treatment approaches may vary, so there can be some oral therapies or IV approaches that may lessen travel burdens."

Question: What help is there for me if I’m struggling with this diagnosis?

Why it helps: Cancer affects the body, mind and spirit – your treatment should do the same. "We encourage patients to review all the resources available to them, using our navigation system and our entire care team, including counselors, social workers, dietitians and others," Donepudi said. "We can also give you information about support groups for you or members of your family."

Other tips for cancer patients:

  • Ask a friend or family member to come with you, and sit down with them prior to the appointment to devise your questions. During the first visit, you might not cover them all, but if you get your thoughts in order you’ll have a smart starting point.
  • Keep copies of your medication guidelines, nutrition and therapy tips and other information so you always have it.
  • Keep a running list of any questions that occur to you. Talk with your family about what is happening. Ask for help when you need it.
  • Beware of "miracle" cures offered online or in other countries. Treatments that are not based in science are usually too good to be true.

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