Questions to Ask the Oncologist About a Cancer Diagnosis

20 essential questions
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Quick summary

A cancer diagnosis can be so shocking that it may be hard to know where to begin when talking to the doctor. It's common to feel completely tongue-tied, wondering if it's okay to even let the things you're thinking about cross your lips. For example, the first question on your mind may be "Is it curable?" Well, that's a perfectly reasonable thing to be wondering. The doctor may not be able to give you a definitive answer, but getting his opinion allows you to begin planning for the future and start a conversation about what's to come.


When accompanying someone to a doctor appointment, it's a good idea to bring a pen and paper to take notes, or ask the doctor's staff to provide writing materials. Many people find that no matter how hard they listen during appointments, the information becomes a blur as soon as they leave the office. (If you have a tape recorder, you might even want to bring it or another recording device, but ask the doctor if it's okay to use it before you turn it on.)


Start by quickly making a mental list of everything that's unclear. Don't worry if some of your questions seem obvious -- if you don't know the answer, that makes a question absolutely worth asking. And if the answer to one question brings another to mind, ask that as well. You'll find that at each appointment and stage of treatment, more questions will come up. But here are some to get you started.


  1. Can you be absolutely sure it's cancer? How did you make the diagnosis?
  2. What tests have you run, and what tests are available?
  3. Is this type of cancer rare or relatively common? How many cases have you seen?
  4. How advanced is the cancer? Has it spread to more than one area?
  5. Why are you recommending this particular treatment?
  6. Are there other treatment options available for this cancer, and what are the pros and cons of each?
  7. Is there any written material about the recommended treatment that we can take home to read?
  8. What are the goals of this treatment, and what is the success rate?
  9. How long will the treatment last?
  10. What are the risks of this treatment?
  11. What are the side effects of this treatment?
  12. Are there ways to manage the side effects?
  13. How do we know if a side effect is severe enough to warrant calling you?
  14. What do we need to do to prepare for this treatment?
  15. Is there anything that's important to avoid before or during treatment?
  16. Can you tell us what to expect during treatment -- where does it take place, how long does it last, and is it uncomfortable?
  17. How do patients typically feel after treatment, both immediately afterward and in the days that follow?
  18. Is it a good idea to make certain diet or lifestyle changes, and how can friends and family help with these?
  19. Are there any new treatment options or clinical trials we should be aware of?
  20. What's the best way for us to contact you when we have more questions about the treatment?

Melanie Haiken

Melanie Haiken discovered how important it is to provide accurate, targeted, usable health information to people facing difficult decisions when she was health editor of Parenting magazine. See full bio