6 Questions to Ask Your Oncologist After a Cancer Diagnosis

January 15, 2015 in Disease Management  •  By Miles Varn

If you or a loved one has been recently diagnosed with cancer, you’re likely to have questions. To understand your diagnosis and treatment options, it’s helpful to sit down with your oncologist and get answers to these six questions before choosing what treatment approach to follow. Also, keep in mind that you should seek a second opinion to affirm your diagnosis before starting a treatment plan.

  1. Is this tumor benign or malignant?

Normally, cells produce new cells by growing and dividing in a controlled way. However, new cells sometimes grow unnecessarily, forming a mass of extra tissue or tumor. These tumors may be benign or malignant. Only malignant tumors are cancerous, which means they are capable of invading surrounding tissue and spreading to distant organs.

  1. What is the exact type and name of the cancer?

Cancers have a generic name based on where the cancer originates. For example, a cancer that arises in the breast is called breast cancer. Within this category, there are specific types of breast cancer. The generic name for a cancer includes many different forms of the disease, so it’s important to find out your specific type of cancer and tumor cell type.

  1. What is the stage of the cancer, and what does that mean?

Cancers can spread throughout the body two ways—by invasion and metastasis. Invasion is the direct migration and penetration of cancer cells into surrounding tissues. Metastasis occurs when cancer cells penetrate into lymphatic and blood vessels, circulate through the bloodstream, and invade tissues elsewhere in the body.

Staging tells you how large the tumor is and how deeply has it invaded surrounding tissues. The stage also indicates whether cancer cells have spread to regional lymph nodes or other areas of the body. Based on this information, the cancer is assigned a stage, usually a number or a letter, or both. Staging is used to determine a patient’s prognosis and guide treatment decisions.

  1. What is the grade of the cancer, and what does that mean?

Tumor grade is a system for classifying cancer cells based on the degree to which they resemble normal cells and how fast they are likely to grow and spread. Cancers with highly abnormal cell appearance and large numbers of dividing cells (the higher grades) tend to grow more quickly and spread to other organs more frequently.

  1. What is my prognosis?

Prognosis is a forecast of the likely course and outcome of your disease. It is based on a range of factors including type of cancer, stage of disease, grade of tumor, and your age and general health. Prognosis can help give you an understanding of how likely your cancer is to respond to certain treatment options and what the likelihood of the recurrence of your cancer is. Doctors determine prognosis by looking at studies of groups of people with the same or a similar diagnosis to yours.

  1. How will my tumor tissue be preserved? Will I have access to it in the future?

To know whether you would benefit from a targeted drug or are eligible to participate in a clinical trial testing a targeted agent, you may need to have your tumor tissue tested. So make sure your tissue specimen is stored properly and that you will have access to it in the future.

By talking frankly with your physician about your questions and concerns, you can be a more active, informed participant in your care.