Talking With Your Doctor

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Asking questions

Write down your questions as they come up between visits and take them to your next appointment. Here are some questions your doctor can usually answer for you. Keep in mind that the nurses and other members of your health care team can answer many of your questions, too.

When your doctor gives you instructions, write them down. Make sure you understand them before you leave the office. You will need to follow them exactly. You may also want to keep written notes on any health questions and concerns. Bring your notes with you to appointments to help you remember what you wanted to ask or tell your doctor.

Basic information

These are some basic questions that can help you start learning about cancer and the choices you will have to make.

  • What do I have? (What is my diagnosis?)
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Are there other treatments?
  • What are the benefits of these treatments?
  • What are the risks?
  • How long will I need treatment?
  • What medicines are you giving me? What are they for?
  • How should I expect to feel during treatment?
  • What side effects, if any, can I expect to have?
  • What can be done about the side effects?

You can find more detailed question lists online at

Other things you may want to ask about

Here are some other things you may want to discuss with your doctor before and during treatment:

Effects of treatment: How will treatment affect the things in my life that are important to me? For example, will the disease or the treatment keep me from working or from caring for my family? How will I cope if I live alone? Will I be able to have children after treatment? Will I have any physical problems? Again, ask your doctor if you want more information about your treatment. Ask if there is written information you can take with you.

Starting treatment: Is it OK to wait to start treatment? Maybe you have a vacation, wedding, graduation, or other big event you want to go to before starting treatment. Or maybe you feel like your doctor is waiting too long to do your surgery or start your radiation or chemo. You may feel as if every day that goes by is one lost when you could have been fighting the cancer. Talk to your doctor about this. It may be safe to put off treatment for a short time. And in some cases it’s best to take time to get as much information as you can about your overall health and the cancer in order to know which treatment is best for you.

Contact numbers: What is the best time to call if I have a question? Some doctors have a special time to return calls. Expect your doctor to call you back, but remember that a quick response may not be possible if another patient is having a crisis. And many times a nurse can answer your questions, too. Where do I call if I have an emergency? What about after office hours, on holidays, or on the weekend?

You medical information: Who else gets information about me? Is there another doctor who should be kept informed? You may also want your doctor to be able to talk with your spouse, family members, or loved ones about your condition. Think about your choices and tell your doctor what you want. You may have to sign a form giving the doctor permission to talk to certain people. For more information on patient privacy, see our document What Is HIPAA?

If problems come up: Always tell your doctor about any effects from your treatment or from the cancer itself. Physical symptoms can be very important for your doctor to know about during (and even after) treatment. People with cancer may have trouble with pain, breathing, sleeping, nausea, appetite, their bowels, feeling tired, or other problems. Many discomforts can be prevented or made less of a problem with help from your doctor. Tell the doctor:

  • What kind of symptom you are having and exactly how it feels
  • The time of day you usually notice this symptom
  • How bad it is
  • Where you feel it in your body
  • How long it lasts
  • What, if anything, makes the symptom better or worse
  • In what way or ways it affects or interferes with your daily life

If you keep having problems, let your doctor know what works and what doesn’t. Most people have to try more than one way to get symptoms under control.

If you feel sad, overwhelmed, or hopeless a lot of the time and these feelings don’t go away, bring this up with your doctor. There are many kinds of emotional distress that go with cancer and its treatment. You may have a problem that can be treated. See our document called Distress in People With Cancer for more details.

Above all, your doctor should take your questions seriously. He or she should be interested in your concerns and not make you feel rushed. If your doctor does not respond this way, bring it up at your next visit.

Last Medical Review: 05/04/2012
Last Revised: 05/04/2012