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Take Control by Learning About Your Cancer

Find out about the disease and your treatment options

National Institutes of Health

Based on content from the NIH publication, “Taking Time: Support For People With Cancer.”

When you first learn you have cancer, daily life can feel like it is turned upside down. Learning more about your type of cancer and its treatment can help you feel more in control.

Learn about your type of cancer and its treatment by:

  • Asking your health care providers questions.
  • Taking notes during your doctor visits.
  • Getting a second opinion.
  • Calling the Cancer Information Service at (800) 422-6237.
  • Looking up your type of cancer on the NCI website.
  • Visiting a public library or a hospital library for patients and families.

Learning about your cancer can help you talk to your doctor about which treatment is right for you.

Cancer can rob people of a sense of control over their lives. You may feel that your future is uncertain and you do not know if you are going to live or die. Or you may rely on doctors you hardly know to help you make health decisions.

People often feel more in control when they learn as much as they can about cancer and its treatment. They say that it is easier to make decisions when they know what to expect. How much do you know about your cancer and its treatment?

When you see clouds gathering, prepare to catch rainwater.
 — Gola (African) Proverb

Learning From Your Health Care Providers

Doctors, nurses and other health care providers can teach you a lot about cancer and its treatment. But sometimes people have trouble learning because they're scared or confused. These feelings can make it hard to learn new information. When anxiety goes up, it makes it harder to remember things. But there are things you can do to make it easier to learn.

Ask Your Doctor or Nurse to Write Down the Name and Stage of Your Cancer

There are many different types of cancer and each type has its own name. "Stage" refers to the size of the cancer tumor and how far it has spread in your body. Knowing the name and stage of your cancer will help:

  • You find out more about your cancer.
  • Your doctor and you decide what treatment choices you have.

Ask as Many Questions as You Have

Your doctor needs to know your questions and concerns. Write down your questions and bring them with you to the doctor's visit. Sometimes you can even send your questions ahead of time. Your doctor can get information ready for you if he or she knows your questions in advance. If you have a lot of questions, you and your doctor may want to plan extra time to talk about them.

Don't Worry if Your Questions Seem Silly

All your questions are important and deserve an answer. It's OK to ask the same question more than once. It's also OK to ask your doctor to use simpler words and explain terms that are new to you. To make sure you understand, use your own words to repeat back what you heard the doctor say.

One who asks is a fool for five minutes, but one who does not ask remains a fool forever.
 — Chinese Proverb

Take Someone Along When You See the Doctor

Ask a family member or friend to go with you when you see your doctor. This person can help by listening, taking notes and asking questions. Later, you can both talk about what the doctor had to say. If you can't find someone to go with you when you see the doctor, ask your doctor if he or she will talk with a friend or family member over the phone.

Take Notes or Tape Record Your Conversation With Your Doctor

Many patients have trouble remembering what they talk about with their doctor. Ask if you can take notes or make a tape recording. Review these notes or listen to the tape later. This can help you remember what you talked about. You might also want to let your family and friends see these notes so that they, too, can learn what the doctor had to say.

Learning About Your Treatment Choices

You can learn about your treatment choices by:

  • Asking your doctor.
  • Getting a second opinion.
  • Calling the Cancer Information Service at (800) 422-6237 or TTY (for deaf and hard of hearing callers) at (800) 332-8615.
  • Reading about your type of cancer on the Internet.

Every road has two directions.
 — Russian Proverb

Ask your doctor to tell you about your treatment choices. Sometimes there is more than one treatment that can help. Ask how each treatment can help and what side effects (reactions to the treatment) you might have. If your doctor asks you to choose which treatment you want, try to learn all you can about each choice. Let your doctor know if you need more time to think about these issues before your treatment begins.

Get a second opinion from a doctor who takes care of cancer patients (an oncologist). The oncologist may agree with your first doctor's treatment plan. Or he or she may suggest something else. Many health insurance plans pay for a second opinion. Read your policy, call your insurance company or speak with a social worker to learn if your insurance plan will pay for a second opinion.

Call the cancer information service at (800) 422-6237 or TTY (for deaf and hard of hearing callers) at (800) 332-8615. They can answer questions and send you information about treatment choices for different kinds of cancer.

Read about your type of cancer on the National Cancer Institute Web site. For information about your specific type of cancer, see NCI's Physician Data Query (PDQ) database.

Learning More About Your Cancer

There are many other ways to learn about your cancer. You can read books or journal articles or search for information on the Internet. Make sure, however, to talk with your doctor about what you learn. He or she can explain what you don't understand and let you know if anything is untrue or not useful for you. Here are some ways to get more information about cancer:

  • Ask your doctor for printed materials (such as booklets or fact sheets) about your type of cancer or about cancer in general.
  • Look for cancer information at your public library or visit a library for patients and family members at your local hospital or medical school.
  • Call your hospital and ask if they have cancer programs for patients and family members. Many hospitals offer classes and support groups.
  • Search the Internet. The National Cancer Institute Web site is a good place to start. If you do not have a computer at home, most public libraries have computers you can use. For more details, see the NCI factsheet, "Evaluating Health Information on the Internet."
  • Contact the Cancer Information Service at (800) 422-6237 or TTY (for deaf and hard of hearing callers) at (800) 332-8615.

Summing Up: Learning About Your Cancer and Regaining Control

When you find out you have cancer, you may feel that your life is no longer within your control. As if daily life is turned upside down.

For many people, regaining a sense of control begins by learning as much as they can about their cancer. Talk to your doctor and nurses. Seek information from the library, the Internet and the Cancer Information Service to help you learn about your type of cancer and its treatment.

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