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Targeting Cancer: What questions should you ask your oncologist?

Whether you're visiting an oncologist for the first time or seeking a second opinion, asking the right questions can help you understand important information about your diagnosis.

Learning you have cancer can be overwhelming. How do you take it all in? And what questions should you ask?

Whether you're visiting an oncologist for the first time or seeking a second opinion, asking the right questions can help you understand important information about your diagnosis.

Dr. Keith Wells, a medical oncologist at Willamette Valley Cancer Institute’s clinic in Corvallis, encourages patients to bring a friend or family member with them to their appointments.

“It’s so important to have someone who can write things down, so you can go back and review it later. Different people hear different things, so having more than one set of ears can be helpful. This allows the patient to focus on the discussion, listen to their oncologist and have that important interaction,” he says.

Start by asking these questions:

  • What specific type of cancer do I have?
  • Where is the cancer located?
  • Has the cancer spread beyond where it started? This is known as staging.

“Staging helps determine what type of treatments are available; whether it’s surgery or radiation therapy, or if we need to do any type of chemotherapy or other systemic therapies, such as oral drugs or immunotherapies,” says Dr. Wells.

During initial appointments, patients receive a lot of information, so never be afraid to stop your doctor and say, “I didn’t understand that.”

In addition to asking about your specific type of cancer and treatment, it’s also important to ask about symptom management, side effects, accessing support services, clinical trials and general questions about the clinic, including making appointments and help after hours.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology offers this list of questions you can ask to help you better understand your cancer and your options. Be willing to talk openly with your oncology care team; they are here to help you understand your diagnosis and empower you to make the best decisions about your care.

Researching your diagnosis online

It’s common for patients to seek cancer information on the internet. While there’s plenty of good, helpful information online, there is also a lot of misinformation that can appear credible on the surface.

“Many websites that have discussion boards and places where patients can interact with each other. Those sites can be scary places, because you see a wide range of experiences,” Dr. Wells says. “Ask your oncologist to recommend reputable websites and to help you sort through information specific to your diagnosis.”

Seeking a second opinion

Be sure to let your doctor know if you are interested in seeking a second opinion. Patients are often hesitant to bring up this topic, because they do not want to offend their doctor. But getting a second opinion is important, in part, because It provides a second review of the patient’s pathology. Most physicians understand the value of a second opinion and may even be able to recommend another doctor.

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