Questions About Your Diagnosis

As we live longer, more and more people are likely to get cancer. There are, however, millions of Americans who have been diagnosed and successfully treated for cancer. Improved screening and treatment methods have led to many people becoming long-term survivors.

Being an informed, involved patient is an important part in overcoming cancer. If you -- or a loved one -- has been diagnosed with cancer, here are questions you may experience.

What Is Cancer?

Although the term “cancer” is often used as if it were one disease, cancer is actually a group of more than 100 different diseases affecting various parts of the body. They all have one common characteristic: the uncontrolled growth and spread of abnormal cells. These cells can multiply, form a tumor, and invade and damage healthy body tissues and organs.

Cancer is rarely caused by a single factor; rather, it is the result of a complex interaction between cancer-causing substances called carcinogens, DNA mutations and heredity. The process begins with the many thousands of genes found in each cell of the human body. Genes, made up of DNA, carry instructions for making the proteins that regulate all body processes, including how efficiently we process foods, metabolize toxins and fight infections.

Genes are activated, or switched on and off, by signals in the body or by environmental influences. For instance, alcohol, cigarette smoke, too much sun, or high levels of certain chemicals can damage the DNA and cause genes to mutate, or change. When the body’s normal repair mechanism doesn’t work properly, because of genetic or environmentally caused mutation, the damaged cell continues to grow and multiply abnormally and can eventually lead to cancer.

Many people believe that all cancer is triggered by defective genes. However, most people who get cancer do not inherit altered, or mutated, genes. Only about 5 to 10 percent of all cancers are thought to be caused by an inherited “cancer gene.” Even if there is a strong family history of a particular cancer, it does not mean that cancer is inevitable. Dietary and lifestyle factors can interact with the genes to influence whether an individual develops the disease.

How to find a doctor and health care team

One important consideration in cancer treatment is deciding on a doctor. You can find a board-certified oncologist by researching online and by asking your primary care physician, managed-care representative or a hospital’s oncology department. You must feel confident that your oncologist is not only experienced, but also competent and up-to-date and that he or she sees you as a partner in your treatment.

Download AICRs CancerResource (above) for a list of questions to ask your doctor that you can print and take with you.

When visiting an oncologist, it may lessen your anxiety to bring a list of questions and something to take notes with or record your conversation with you. It’s a good idea to bring a family member or close friend with you to provide another pair of ears that may catch something you might miss – and to ask questions. Be sure you feel comfortable having an open discussion with your provider, as good communication is critical to a doctor-patient relationship and in taking an active role in your treatment.

Even if you are satisfied with your health team, a second opinion can be useful. It can give you confidence in the information you have already obtained or offer a different approach to treatment.

How to better understanding your diagnosis

It is important to understand the diagnosis you receive when you visit your doctor. Powerful emotions – including denial, anger, fear, stress, loneliness, depression and hope – are a natural response to even a potential diagnosis of cancer. Getting the facts about your situation will help you make informed decisions in the days ahead. If you are nervous or don’t think you’ll remember what you are being told, bring someone with you, ask your doctor to write out the information you need or take notes yourself. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Make sure you understand what the doctor is saying.

As you cope with the issues associated with a cancer diagnosis, including the effects on your family routines and roles, speak openly about your feelings. If you or family members are having trouble adjusting to the diagnosis, consider seeking referrals to local support organizations for help. Many people find that cancer support groups or talking with another survivor with a similar diagnosis and treatment are a source of strength and can offer practical ideas for everyday life.