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Top Questions to Ask Your Oncologist Before Starting Cancer Treatment
What to Expect

Top Questions to Ask Your Oncologist Before Starting Cancer Treatment

What to Expect


Shenell Malloy

I felt so nervous and overwhelmed on what to expect after surgery.  I knew I would start some combination of chemotherapy and radiation but was unsure of what questions to specifically ask that would help prepare me for the days, weeks, and months ahead.

To help guide you, bring this list of helpful questions to your next oncology appointment to understand the process on a deeper level and to get you mentally ready for your healing game plan.

1. What is the goal of my cancer treatment?

This is important to know to set expectations. I found it helpful to know the exact statistics of efficacy for each treatment type.

  • What are treatments for my type and stage of cancer?
  • Where can I find more information about the types of cancer treatments?
  • What are the benefits and risks of each of these treatments?
  • What treatment do you recommend? Why do you think it is best for me?
  • When will I need to start treatment?
  • Will I need to be in the hospital for treatment? If so, for how long?
  • What is my chance of recovery with this treatment?
  • How will we know if the treatment is working?
  • Would a clinical trial (research study) be right for me?
  • How do I find out about studies for my type and stage of cancer?

2. How will treatment be administered?
  • Why this question is important: Chemotherapy may be administered in pill form, in liquid form, an injection, or an infusion, depending on your diagnosis and needs. Each form has its benefits, drawbacks, and side effects.
  • How to be proactive: You can get what you need for chemotherapy treatment before it begins. For example, if you need a port or a PICC line, you may want to buy accessible clothing so these items can be reached without undressing.

3. What happens during treatment?
  • Where will I go for treatment?
  • How is the treatment given?
  • How long will each treatment session take?
  • How many treatment sessions will I have?
  • Should a family member or friend come with me to my treatment sessions?
  • How will I feel after each treatment? Will I be able to go about my day or should I plan to rest?
  • Will treatment affect my appetite or make it hard to eat?

4. When will side effects start?
  • Why this question is important: Knowing when side effects may begin is just as important as knowing what they are. Nausea, vomiting, pain, and hair loss are all common, but they may not appear for everyone on the same timetable, if at all.
  • How to be proactive: While an oncologist may not prescribe anti-nausea or pain medication right away, knowing roughly when side effects begin can help you determine when you may need it. You will want to have products and prescriptions at the ready, in case.
  • Ask specific questions: What are the possible side effects of the treatment? What side effects may happen during or between my treatment sessions? Are there any side effects that I should call you about right away? Are there any lasting side effects of the treatment? Will this treatment affect my ability to have children? Will treatment affect my appetite or make it hard to eat? How can I prevent or treat side effects?

5. What type of diet is best?
  • Why this question is important: Nutrient-dense foods are key to successful outcomes. Nutrient-dense food supports an immune system weakened by chemotherapy and helps facilitate healing. Your oncologist may have recommendations, such as diets recommended by Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, or you may be referred to a nutritionist.
  • How to be proactive: Research easy and nutritious recipes you can prepare with minimal effort on exhausting days, like avocado toast or overnight oats. You may also want to prepare food that freezes well to eat on days you are too tired to cook, like vegetable soup.  More ideas here.

6. Do medicines and supplements I’m taking interfere?
  • Do I need to tell you about the medicines I am taking now?
  • Should I tell you about dietary supplements (such as vitamins, minerals, herbs, or fish oil) that I am taking?
  • Could any drugs or supplements change the way that cancer treatment works?

7. Can I book a second appointment to discuss my diagnosis?
  • Why this question is important: You may have gone into shock when you heard you have cancer. The emotional trauma of coping with the difficult news makes it hard to focus on anything else. A follow-up appointment gives you the opportunity to think of any additional questions to ask your oncologist before chemotherapy.
  • How to be proactive: Ask for a second visit so you can return ready to talk about next steps. This way, you can focus on the important information your doctor will relay instead of coping with trauma while trying to make important health decisions.
  • Ask specific questions: Will I need a specialist(s) for my cancer treatment? Will you help me find a doctor to give me another opinion on the best treatment plan for me? (if not already at an oncologist-specialist)

8. Can I record this conversation?
  • Why this question is important: You will hear a lot of information during any one appointment. Recording the conversation and playing it back later can help you confirm what you heard and catch what you may have missed. During playback you might even think of additional questions to ask your oncologist before chemotherapy begins.
  • How to be proactive: Bring a recorder or your smartphone with you to the appointment. You may want to call ahead of time to ask if recording the conversation is OK.

9. Who should I contact if I have questions, concerns, or issues?
  • Why this question is important: Your oncologist is a very busy person, and you may not be able to speak with them directly when you have questions or concerns.
  • How to be proactive: Ask your doctor’s office if they have a nurse navigator program. This team serves as a dedicated liaison between you and the oncologist so you can get your questions answered quickly. Many Nurse Navigator programs operate after hours.

10. How much does treatment cost?
  • Why this question is important: The cost of cancer treatment is dizzying and adds up quickly, adding to the emotional drain of managing chemotherapy. If you have insurance, confirming coverage or reimbursements takes a lot of time and energy.
  • How to be proactive: Many oncology offices offer a Health Navigator to help or contacts that step in to help with billing. The American Cancer Society recommends bringing a trusted family member or friend with you to appointments, so they can help ease the burden of having multiple conversations over finances.  

11. What sort of assistance will I need?
  • Why this question is important: Once friends and family learn of your diagnosis, you will likely be flooded with offers of help, from rides to the oncologist to making dinners at home. While these offers come from a kind place, it may be overwhelming to address these offers.
  • How to be proactive: Consider utilizing the resources offered by groups like Mend Together, which offer tools that help streamline and manage gifts from loved ones. You can set up a registry with needed items as well as cash gifts, a journal a friend or family member can update on your behalf, and a volunteer signup calendar to properly manage gifts of time.

12. Do you have mental health resources?
  • Why this question is important: Managing cancer treatment is emotionally draining. Taking care of your mental health can help you manage those tough feelings.
  • How to be proactive: In addition to obtaining mental health resources from your oncologist, you may want to explore ways to manage mental health at home. You may find a yoga guide, meditation guides, or a breath tracker to be helpful tools.

13. Do you know of any support groups I can join?
  • Why this question is important: You are not alone. Support groups can help you manage complicated and difficult emotions surrounding cancer treatment.
  • How to be proactive: Seek out support group information before treatment begins, as to not overburden you while you are undergoing treatment.

Nothing in the world can prepare you for the moment you learn that you need chemotherapy. By preparing the right questions to ask your oncologist before chemotherapy, you can leave your appointments feeling more prepared for the challenges ahead.

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