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Cancer Support: Being an Active Patient - Topic Overview

Dealing with cancer is hard enough without feeling like you have to make decisions, ask your doctor questions, and be part of your treatment team.

It may seem easier to just let your doctors handle everything.

But it's a fact that when you are an "active patient"—when you and your doctors make decisions together—you're more likely to be happier with your care and have better medical results.1

How do you become an active patient?

Get the facts. Ask questions. Learn all you can. If you don't understand something, ask your doctor to explain it again.

Bring a support person. Bring a trusted friend or relative to every appointment. This support person can ask questions you forgot to ask or help you remember later what your doctor said.

Take the lead. Go to all your appointments. Speak up for yourself. Make sure the medicine you get at the drugstore is the right one.

Ask lots of questions. At every stage of your testing, diagnosis, and treatment, ask your doctor if there is anything you may not be prepared for or aren't expecting. For example, you could ask, "What are the things about this (test, surgery, treatment) that patients wish they'd known about ahead of time?"

Use your whole team. Ask your doctor who else is on your treatment team and how they can be resources for you. For example, a nurse practitioner may be more available than your doctor when questions come up. Or your team may include a dietitian, a massage therapist, or a social worker.

Be part of each decision. Make your own feelings and values part of your decision. Talk to loved ones who will be affected by it. Make a list of pros and cons for each option. Share all this with your doctor.

Make an action plan. After you and your doctor have made a decision, find out what you can do to make sure that you will have the best possible outcome. Write down the steps that you need to take next. Think positively about your decision.

What questions should you ask?

Even the smartest people in the world have trouble thinking clearly at the doctor's office, especially when the subject is as serious as cancer. That's why taking a trusted relative or friend with you is such a good idea. And it may help if you write down the questions you want to ask and bring the list with you.

Questions for the doctor
Questions to ask about ...
Your diagnosis Tests Medicine
  • What are my treatment choices?
  • How well does each treatment work?
  • What are the risks and side effects of each treatment?
  • What happens if I don't have treatment?
  • What lifestyle changes do I need to make?
  • How can I explain this diagnosis to others?
  • Should I have genetic testing?
  • What should I expect after treatment?
  • Will I need to have tests to monitor the treatment?
  • Where can I get a second opinion?
  • Why is this test important?
  • What will it be like?
  • Will it hurt? If so, will you give me medicine so that I don't feel pain?
  • How accurate will the results be?
  • What are the risks and benefits of the test?
  • Can I have a copy of my test results?
  • How soon can I get the test results?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How does this medicine work?
  • Are there side effects?
  • Is it okay to take this medicine along with my other medicines?
  • How long will I have to take it?
  • How much will it cost?


More questions for the doctor
Questions to ask about ...
ChemotherapyRadiation Surgery
  • How will the chemotherapy drugs be given to me?
  • What will it feel like?
  • Will my hair fall out? When?
  • How often will I have chemo?
  • How long will chemo treatments take?
  • What is a chemo port? Will I need one?
  • If I need a chemo port installed, can I have anesthesia?
  • Can I have anesthesia while the port is being removed?
  • How much will it cost?
  • What will radiation feel like?
  • Will it affect my ability to have children?
  • Will my hair fall out?
  • What will happen to my skin?
  • Will this affect breast reconstruction?
  • How long will radiation treatments take?
  • How often will I have treatments?
  • How much will it cost?
  • How many times have you done this operation?
  • Exactly what will happen in surgery?
  • Will I wake up with tubes coming out of my body?
  • Will I be in pain afterward?
  • What will the scars look like?
  • What kind of treatment will I need after surgery?
  • How much will it cost?

WebMD Medical Reference from Healthwise

Last Updated: June 18, 2012
This information is not intended to replace the advice of a doctor. Healthwise disclaims any liability for the decisions you make based on this information.
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