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First Cancer Appointment: How Will You Prepare Yourself?

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Cancer Appointment

First Cancer Appointment: How Will You Prepare Yourself?

Dr. Ranga Rao
Director - Medical Oncology
Medical Oncology, Cancer Care / Oncology

Your first cancer appointment with an oncologist can be overwhelming or it can be a stressful or fearful experience.  Your head may be buzzing with bundles of fears, worries and questions. We have prepared a few FAQs that can help prepare you for your appointment so that it becomes easy for you to move on with confidence in your cancer journey.  

What is the first step?

The first step you have to do is to make an appointment with an oncologist. Reach the clinic ½ to 1 hour prior to your appointment so that you can register and complete formalities. You can enquire about all concerned specialists subsequently. Learn about the pre-consultation process, time taken so that you can schedule accordingly.

What’s the most important thing I should do before my first meeting with my oncologist?

An Oncologist will ask about your medical history. It is obvious that when you enter the doctor’s office, you might forget what all things have happened, so it is helpful for you to write down your history of events. Keep a note of your symptoms and what made you go to the doctor in the first place. What tests did your doctor recommend? Were you referred to additional specialists? Or have you been treated for cancer before?

What should I bring with me?

In order to make it a thorough and continuous consultation; the oncologist you are meeting should have all your reports and other requested materials. This primarily includes copies of scans, X-rays, MRIs, CTs and other imaging tests that were done, additionally, pathology slides and blocks if a biopsy was performed. It is always recommended to file them properly. Some hospitals have the practice of making your files; let them do so.

What all information does the doctor need to know?

More than you can imagine, a lot depends on how well you and your cancer specialist communicate.  And talk is a “2 way street”. It’s not just telling the doctor what’s wrong and him/her giving you statistics. It’s also you listening to them and the doctor listening to you.  You have very little time to develop a good working relationship with your doctor. From day one, your preparation will help establish good communication that will carry through all stages of diagnosis, cancer treatment and recovery.

So it’s a good idea to be upfront with your doctor and let him/her know about your other medical conditions, previous surgeries, other cancers and treatment, prescription medicines, over-the-counter medicines, and herbal supplements. Don’t assume “it’s all there in the record.”  Make a list and bring it with you. 

You may not realize it, but how well you’re handling your disease may impact on how well your chemotherapy works on your breast cancer or how well your radiation works on your prostate cancer.

  • Bring a list of any drugs you’re taking, both prescription and over-the-counter. Be sure to include vitamins, minerals, and supplements.
  • Organize copies of your information in a loose-leaf binder with pockets. It will become a handy reference kit. Include a written list of questions about your diagnosis and treatment options.

What are those key questions?

More questions come up after the consultation. So write those down so that you can talk with your cancer specialist at the next visit. It often takes time for you to process everything that you have been told. If you still have a lot of questions, rather than calling the office, schedule a follow-up visit. This way you can have ample time to ask and more importantly, to understand.

Ask a family member or friend to accompany you.  Take complete notes of the conversation with the doctor so you can review the details later.

Having said that, here are some things that are helpful to discuss during your first appointment:

  • What is my diagnosis and how soon do I need to start therapy?
  • What are my treatment options, what is involved and how long will each treatment take?
  • What are the benefits of the recommended treatment?
  • What are its potential risks and side effects?
  • Should I consider participating in a clinical trial? Are they available in India?
  • How will the treatment affect my daily routine? Can I continue to work through treatment?
  • Will treatment impact my fertility? If so, is there anything I can do to protect my ability to have children in the future? (relevant for some)
  • What should I do if I develop new symptoms after I begin treatment?
  • What support resources are available to help me cope with my diagnosis?
  • Whom should I call if I have additional questions after I leave the office?

For Consecutive appointments:

  • Maintain a file where you can keep copies of all test results, medication, nutrition and therapy tips, and any other information that relates to your type of cancer, treatment or healthcare team. Bring this file to all the appointments.
  • Be sure that you have completed the tests and followed instructions given during last visit.
  • Define the purpose of your visit.
  • Keep a running list of any questions that occur to you as you move forward, or side effects or problems that develop so you can discuss them with your healthcare team.
  • Talk with your family about what is happening, perhaps even bringing certain members to appointments so they have a better understanding of your disease and how it can affect you physically and psychologically.

A good preparation prior to all consultations helps you and the consultant. It is very important to walk in to his office prepared.