Listen to the Cancer.Net Podcast: Making Decisions About Cancer Treatment, adapted from this content.
After a diagnosis of cancer, patients and their families must make a number of decisions about cancer treatment, some of which are more difficult than others. These decisions are complicated by unfamiliar words, statistics, and a sense of urgency. However, it is important to allow time to research your options and ask questions. Decisions about cancer treatment are personal, and it is important that you feel comfortable about your decisions. Consider taking the following steps.
Learn about your cancer. Try to understand as much as you can about your type of cancer, such as its stage (a way of describing a cancer, including where it is located and whether it has spread to other parts of the body). If you are unfamiliar with certain words, ask your doctor or nurse or use a medical dictionary. Some people find it helpful to take notes during a doctor's visit or bring a friend along to help keep track of all the information.
Know your options. Talk with your doctor about treatment options for your type and stage of cancer. Some of these options may include surgery, radiation therapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, active surveillance (watchful waiting), enrolling in a clinical trial, and not receiving treatment. People are often surprised to learn that they may have different treatment options. Learn more about types of cancer treatment.
Understand the goals of treatment. Treatment may be used to slow, stop, or eliminate the cancer (also called disease-directed treatment). Another important part of cancer care involves relieving a person's symptoms and side effects. This includes supporting the patient with his or her physical, emotional, and social needs, an approach called palliative or supportive care. People often receive disease-directed therapy and treatment to ease symptoms at the same time. Knowing the goals of treatment helps you evaluate which risks are acceptable. For example, people who know their treatment is curative may be more willing to face potentially unpleasant side effects.
Learn about the risks and benefits of each treatment option. Different treatments have different risks, as well as potential side effects. As you weigh the positives and negatives of each treatment option, factors to consider include the likelihood that the cancer will recur (come back) after treatment, the chances of living longer with or without treatment, the possibility of side effects, and your personal and family preferences.
Obtain a second opinion. Many people find that it helps to get a second or even third opinion from another oncologist, and many doctors encourage it. Different oncologists may have different experiences with various treatments, and seeking multiple opinions may help you make a decision. Learn more about types of oncologists and seeking a second opinion.
Find help managing the cost of cancer care. The cost of cancer care can be high, and there may be unanticipated expenses. Your health care team can help you identify costs related to your treatment options, suggest ways to help reduce or manage medical and associated costs, and refer you to support services that address the financial difficulties many people with cancer face. Learn more about managing the cost of cancer care.
Consult guidelines or other decision-making tools. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) and other cancer organizations publish guidelines and treatment decision-making tools to help doctors and patients understand various treatment options. Find easy-to-read summaries of ASCO Clinical Practice Guidelines. In addition, some cancer centers offer sophisticated statistical tools you can use with your doctor to help determine the best treatment option based on your personal medical information. Always use treatment guidelines and other tools with the help and interpretation of your doctor.
Talk about your decision with people you trust. Talk with your family, your friends, a member of the clergy or a spiritual advisor, an oncology social worker, and other people with cancer. What you decide is ultimately up to you, but some people find it helpful to talk through their concerns with other people. Many patient support organizations bring together people who have coped with similar experiences.
The role of statistics
Your doctor may mention statistics when describing treatment options, including relative survival rates, disease-free survival rates, and progression-free survival rates. These numbers may be a good way to learn about how the treatment options differ, but they can't predict how well the treatment will work in an individual. Your doctor can help you understand how these statistics relate to your treatment. Learn more about cancer statistics.
Last Updated: April 06, 2011