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The Engaged Patient

Making Good Treatment Decisions

Hearing the words “You have cancer” can feel paralyzing. Before making any treatment decisions, carefully consider your options to make the best, most informed decisions for yourself.
December 2016 Vol 2 No 6
Elizabeth Franklin, MSW, ACSW
Executive Director, Cancer Policy Institute
Cancer Support Community

Hearing the words “You have cancer” can feel paralyzing. Before making any treatment decisions, carefully consider your options to make the best, most informed decisions for yourself.

Gather Additional Expert Opinions

You may have been initially referred to an oncologist from a primary care physician or from another provider with whom you have an ongoing relationship. You may not be familiar with the oncologist, his or her approach to patient care, the experience of the oncologist with a specific type of cancer, or the track record of the oncologist in successfully treating patients. 

When you are facing a potentially life-limiting illness, you may want a second opinion to inform your treatment choices. The relationship between you and your oncologist is a partnership. Your oncologist is the cancer expert, but you ultimately get to choose whether and how to be treated, and by whom. 

It can be helpful to seek opinions from a few other oncologists to make sure you fully understand your options. When considering an oncologist, choose a person who will answer your questions. You should be comfortable with your oncologist, in terms of the medical care you will receive as well as in your ability to work with that oncologist as a patient.

Ask About the Evidence

All medical treatments include trade-offs. You decide which options are best for you based on what you value and prefer. You may determine that the side effects from a particular treatment are not worth it to you, regardless of the potential for a cure. By contrast, you may opt for the treatment that offers the most likely possibility for a cure, regardless of any other factors. 

These decisions are personal, and you have the right to determine your own course of action. Decide what type of information, and how much information, you want to receive. Ask your healthcare team questions. Seek out evidence-based resources, and ask your healthcare team for resources that are credible. 

Support groups can also provide you with peers who can tell you about their experiences with different types of treatments, healthcare systems, and doctors. 

Evaluate Treatment Options

Depending on your type and stage of cancer, your treatment options may include watchful waiting, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, or a combination of therapies. Solid tumors (such as breast, lung, or prostate cancer) often require surgery. Blood cancers (such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma) do not require surgery; they are treated with chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, or other types of precision medicine. 

Each type of treatment has different benefits and risks. As you make decisions about your care, it may be helpful to bring loved ones into your decision-making process to address their fears and concerns. Talking about your options may help those around you better support your recovery needs. 

Gather the information you want and need to know, to make sure that your short-term and long-term needs will be met. And remember that your loved ones want to help, so let them know what they can do to support you. 

Negotiate a Treatment Plan

We all have personal goals, hopes, and needs. Tell your healthcare team about what you are and are not willing to endure, so they can provide options that respond to your needs and values. Patients are healthcare consumers—what you “purchase” (in this case, treatment for cancer) is based on your personal needs. 

If a treatment option does not meet your needs, tell your doctor what is not working. Work with your healthcare team to find solutions. Worst-case scenario, go somewhere else for treatment if your healthcare team is not responsive to your concerns. 

Cancer is scary. But cancer treatment can be less scary if you take the time to consider your options, be honest about what you value and need, and communicate with your healthcare team. Support from family and friends, as well as from your doctor, can make a big difference. 

For daily information on being an engaged patient, follow us on Twitter @PreparedPatient.

Gather Additional Expert Opinions

You may have been initially referred to an oncologist from a primary care physician or from another provider with whom you have an ongoing relationship. You may not be familiar with the oncologist, his or her approach to patient care, the experience of the oncologist with a specific type of cancer, or the track record of the oncologist in successfully treating patients. 

When you are facing a potentially life-limiting illness, you may want a second opinion to inform your treatment choices. The relationship between you and your oncologist is a partnership. Your oncologist is the cancer expert, but you ultimately get to choose whether and how to be treated, and by whom. 

It can be helpful to seek opinions from a few other oncologists to make sure you fully understand your options. When considering an oncologist, choose a person who will answer your questions. You should be comfortable with your oncologist, in terms of the medical care you will receive as well as in your ability to work with that oncologist as a patient.

Ask About the Evidence

All medical treatments include trade-offs. You decide which options are best for you based on what you value and prefer. You may determine that the side effects from a particular treatment are not worth it to you, regardless of the potential for a cure. By contrast, you may opt for the treatment that offers the most likely possibility for a cure, regardless of any other factors. 

These decisions are personal, and you have the right to determine your own course of action. Decide what type of information, and how much information, you want to receive. Ask your healthcare team questions. Seek out evidence-based resources, and ask your healthcare team for resources that are credible. 

Support groups can also provide you with peers who can tell you about their experiences with different types of treatments, healthcare systems, and doctors. 

Evaluate Treatment Options

Depending on your type and stage of cancer, your treatment options may include watchful waiting, chemotherapy, surgery, radiation, hormone therapy, or a combination of therapies. Solid tumors (such as breast, lung, or prostate cancer) often require surgery. Blood cancers (such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma) do not require surgery; they are treated with chemotherapy, radiation, immunotherapy, or other types of precision medicine. 

Each type of treatment has different benefits and risks. As you make decisions about your care, it may be helpful to bring loved ones into your decision-making process to address their fears and concerns. Talking about your options may help those around you better support your recovery needs. 

Gather the information you want and need to know, to make sure that your short-term and long-term needs will be met. And remember that your loved ones want to help, so let them know what they can do to support you. 

Negotiate a Treatment Plan

We all have personal goals, hopes, and needs. Tell your healthcare team about what you are and are not willing to endure, so they can provide options that respond to your needs and values. Patients are healthcare consumers—what you “purchase” (in this case, treatment for cancer) is based on your personal needs. 

If a treatment option does not meet your needs, tell your doctor what is not working. Work with your healthcare team to find solutions. Worst-case scenario, go somewhere else for treatment if your healthcare team is not responsive to your concerns. 

Cancer is scary. But cancer treatment can be less scary if you take the time to consider your options, be honest about what you value and need, and communicate with your healthcare team. Support from family and friends, as well as from your doctor, can make a big difference. 

For daily information on being an engaged patient, follow us on Twitter @PreparedPatient.

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Last modified: March 10, 2022

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