Newly diagnosed cancer patients: Questions to ask your health care team

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By Rosemary Catallo

Patients and their families often come into The Learning Center, where I work as a librarian, to seek information. After interacting with people for many years -- and from reviewing the large amount of information we have access to here -- I've come to understand what information newly diagnosed patients and their families need.

Some patients are anxious if they don't have enough information. Other people get stressed or feel overwhelmed by too much information.

No matter which type of cancer patient you are, asking your health care team the right questions about your disease and cancer treatment can play an important part in managing your care. 

I recommend the following basic questions for newly diagnosed cancer patients. Answers to these questions may allow you to feel less overwhelmed and better able to manage your cancer journey.

Just be sure to think about what you'd like to know right now, and tell your doctor if you would like a little information or a lot. 

Cancer diagnosis

·         What type of cancer do I have? What is my exact diagnosis?

·         Where is the cancer located? Has it spread?

·         What is my prognosis?

Cancer staging

·         What's the stage of my cancer?

·         What does this stage mean for my cancer treatment and prognosis?

Cancer treatment

·         What are my treatment options?

·         Which treatment do you recommend and why?

·         What's the goal of my treatment?

·         What side effects does this treatment have?

·         How often will I have treatments? How long will they last?

·         How should I prepare for treatment?

Cancer research and clinical trials

·         What are clinical trials?

·         Are clinical trials an option for me?

·         How can I learn more?

Cancer treatment side effects

·         What are possible risks and side effects? What should I do to manage them?

·         Will treatment make me infertile? If so, is there anything I can do to try to preserve my fertility?

·         Whom should I call with questions? What about if it's after hours or an emergency?

·         How will treatment affect my daily life? Can I still work? Can I still exercise?

·         What can I do to stay as healthy as possible before, during and after treatment?


·         What support services are available for my family and me?

·         Can you refer me to support services?


·         Who handles health insurance concerns in your office?

·         I'm worried about paying for my treatment. Who can help me?

Learning more

·         Can you please explain my pathology report to me?

·         To avoid confusion, what terms should I use when looking up information about my disease?

·         What resources do you suggest to help me learn more?

·         Are other members of my family at risk?

Improving communication with your doctor
Most doctors find time to answer questions and explain treatment options, but you may not always be able to get your questions answered, at least not right away.

Improve communication with your doctor by doing the following:

·         Write down your questions before your appointment. Prioritize the list and ask your most important questions first.

·         Bring a notebook or recorder. Or use a recording app on your smartphone.

·         Take a friend or family member to your appointment to help ask questions or write down information.

·         Tell your doctor if you don't understand something. Medical vocabulary and concepts can be challenging.

Other resources to help you talk to your doctor
If you'd like to learn more, please visit The Learning Center at MD Anderson or check out the following resources online:

·         Ask the right questions: Get the most out of your oncology appointments (MD Anderson)

·         What You Need to Know About Cancer (National Cancer Institute)

·         Questions to Ask the Doctor (American Society of Clinical Oncology)

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