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Three Tips For Talking With Your Cancer Doctor

Publication: Austin Medical Times, Houston Medical Times

A cancer diagnosis is a life-altering experience. Everyday errands and responsibilities become trivial compared to vital decisions concerning your health and cancer treatment. Many patients have no previous family exposure to cancer, so the idea of talking to a physician about an unknown topic can seem overwhelming. Three simple tips can help cancer patients communicate effectively with their cancer care providers.

1.    Educate (Yourself and Family Members)
Patient education and participation are essential to effective cancer care. Well-informed patients are better able to discuss their care and related issues with their doctor. Informed patients better understand medication compliance, potential treatment side effects, and when to call their cancer care team. Through education, we can help patients stay out of the hospital and emergency rooms.

Cancer providers want patients to receive accurate information. Some providers conduct one-on-one patient care coordination visits to help patients better understand and retain more knowledge about treatment its side effects. At Texas Oncology, we develop a written treatment plan for all patients before they begin any new cancer treatment. The plan covers important patient issues including the type and stage of cancer, the purpose and goal of treatment, and information on drugs and any side effects.

In the Internet age, patients have much more access to information and tend to conduct their own research more than previous generations. The Internet helps facilitate more informed and involved patients. Doctors want patients to ask questions, to know what treatment they’re getting, and to understand why. However, it’s important to use trusted and vetted websites. Ask your care team what resources they have or recommend.

2.    Communicate (Early and Often)
Ideally, doctors should take the initiative to talk with their patients using conversational language that the patients can understand. It’s also helpful for the patient to have a friend or family member in the room to take notes or ask additional questions to help ensure that communication is clear. Before each appointment, patients can prepare by writing down any questions to make sure they cover any issues of concern.

Cancer patients should speak with their doctor regularly. Ideally, that discussion should occur both very early and continue throughout the treatment process. Doctors want patients to let them know how they’re doing – including new symptoms, anything that has changed, even things that are embarrassing – because those discussions improve care.

3.    Elaborate (About Values and Preferences)
Know what’s important to you in receiving care. Evaluate your personal values and wishes and make those known to your doctor. It can be difficult for patients to express their values and wishes, but it can make all the difference in cancer outcomes. In addition to a written treatment plan, Texas Oncology also conducts a patient goals and values assessment prior to treatment. We ask patients what's important, and that helps physicians better align treatment with patient wishes.

 

Rather than just treating a cancer, doctors strive to customize care for patients based on what’s important to them. That’s why early and effective communication between a patient and the doctor is so critical. As cancers change, people and their goals and values can also change, so patients should continue to communicate with doctors throughout the treatment process.

Through effective cancer education, communication with doctors, and elaboration on their treatment goals and values, cancer patients can significantly improve their chances for desired outcomes and personal satisfaction with their cancer care.

Michelle Ashworth, M.D., is a medical oncologist at Texas Oncology–Round Rock, 2410 Round Rock Ave., Suite 150 in Round Rock, Texas.

This article originally appeared in the May print issue of:

  • Austin Medical Times
  • Houston Medical Times

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