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Ask CancerCare

  • My mother is 85 and was told she has stage 3 cancer. She doesn't seem to understand exactly what is going on and is passive. We're not that pleased with her doctors. I don't want to be pushy, but how can we help her?

    Challenges that may affect older adults and their ability to make health care decisions include how they process information, how they cope with the stress of the diagnosis, and how their medical team communicates with them. With this in mind, family support can play an important part in your mother’s care. I’d start by asking your mother if she would like your help, and if so, what areas she would like help with. This might include meeting with her medical team to discuss her treatment plan or helping her prepare for her appointments.

    Questions to ask about her treatment include:

    • What is the recommended treatment and possible side effects?
    • How could treatment affect other co-existing health issues?
    • Is the goal longer survival, which may mean a more intensive treatment, or is it quality of life?

    Ways to involve and organize your mother include:

    • Take notes at her appointments or ask if you can record the discussion
    • During the appointment, ask her if she has questions
    • Repeat and review the information after the appointment, allowing her time to process information
    • Keep a calendar to record her appointments
    • Use a notebook to keep track of symptoms and side effects
    • Create a file for all paperwork related to her diagnosis, including copies of important records
    • Compile a current list of all her medications and phone numbers/addresses of all of her health care providers.

    Your mother’s medical team is one of the most important aspects of her care, and as a health consumer she has every right to receive quality care. It is essential that older adults and their loved ones be able to openly and honestly discuss their care with their doctors and any potential difficulties that may arise. For more guidance please read, “Doctor, Can We Talk? Tips for Communicating With Your Health Care Team”. If she is not comfortable with quality of care she is receiving, she may need to explore other options. Though this may seem daunting, your mother’s primary care doctor or even a local hospital can provide her with referrals.

  • My sister has stage 4 non-small cell lung cancer as well as tumors in her liver. Are there two different chemotherapy treatments for both the lung and the liver or are they treated with the same drugs?

    Stage 4 non-small lung cancer is characterized by the spread (also known as metastasis) of lung cancer cells through the bloodstream to organs outside the lungs such as the liver, brain, adrenal glands or bones. These cells attach to the new areas and begin to grow new tumors. The cells of the new tumor site, however, are lung cancer cells rather than liver cancer cells. So the chemotherapy your sister’s oncologist has chosen to treat the main tumor site in the lungs would also be considered the most appropriate treatment for the lung cancer tumors that have grown in her liver.

    One of the benefits of chemotherapy used for Stage 4 lung cancer is not only that it’s treating tumors known to exist, but it is also working on other tumors that may be too small to be detected yet. That’s why chemotherapy is considered a systemic therapy - it treats cancer tumors throughout the body.

    Find more information about treatments for lung cancer in our booklet, Treatment Update: Lung Cancer.

    CancerCare also offers a full range of free support services for people affected by lung cancer.

  • I have received several different treatment recommendations from doctors, and I have to decide what type of treatment to have. This overwhelms me. How can I make the right choice?

    It’s normal to feel scared about making such an important decision, and it is a decision you need to make in partnership with your healthcare team. Women today are offered many more choices than in the past, and are often asked to make the final decision about their care. You need to gather information about your different treatment options so that you feel confident discussing your concerns with your doctors.

    After talking with your doctors, keep in mind that you have obtained an expert medical opinion, and you need to understand your doctor’s perspective by asking why he or she has made that recommendation. It is important that you not compare yourself to other women in a similar situation. Even women who have the same diagnosis can have a different treatment plan—neither is right or wrong. Rather, it is individualized to you and your body. However, you can review with your doctor the information you learn from other women who have your type of cancer to better understand your own treatment plan.

    In making a decision about what treatment to choose, make sure you identify what is most important to you. For example, if you are concerned about chemotherapy, what are the reasons for your concern? What questions do you need answered? Often, people fear that if they choose one type of treatment over another, they will always worry that they did not choose correctly. Instead, ask yourself questions such as: “What am I being told, and why? What do I think is the best choice for me at this time?” The most important thing is that you make the decision that you are most comfortable with.

    For more guidance read our publications, Communicating With Your Health Care Team and Doctor, Can We Talk?

    To learn more about your treatment options, contact The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service (800-4-CANCER), which provides the latest cancer treatment information as well as a list of comprehensive cancer centers.

    CancerCare’s professional oncology social workers assist women with cancer by providing emotional and practical support, free of charge. Call 800-813-HOPE (4673) or email

  • I want to ask my oncologist about other types of treatments, but am concerned she might think I'm questioning what she has recommended. Is this something most patients do and how should I bring up?

    The issue of exploring “other” treatments, which differ from recommended treatments your doctor has prescribed, is a topic that many patients would like to discuss with their doctors. However, some patients report feeling concerned that this discussion could affect the relationship and quality of their care. Patients may feel that their doctors are so busy that the appointments are rushed and information is given in unfamiliar medical terms, or that they do not know what to ask or feel intimidated.

    A patient’s relationship with his/her doctor is both a professional and personal one. We believe that our doctors and the health care team will be medically effective and, at the same time, compassionate in caring for us. Good doctor/patient communication is key, and communicating effectively with the doctor is a skill that may need attention and practice.

    CancerCare’s publication “Doctor, Can We Talk?”: Tips for Communicating with Your Health Care Team suggests a number of recommendations:

    Before the Appointment

    Remember you are the consumer, and the best consumer is an informed consumer. Learn about your cancer and possible treatments. Know who is on your health care team, including the nurses, social workers and patient navigators.

    Create a journal or binder of your cancer experiences. Note the dates of your appointments, the names and contact information of your health care team, as well as a list of medications with dosages. You can also keep a diary of side effects as well as questions that you have for your next appointment. Writing down questions before your appointment will help you feel more organized. If your doctor is open to this suggestion, send your questions to the doctor before the appointment.

    During the Appointment

    Write down your doctor’s comments, advice and answers to your questions. If you feel that this will not work for you, bring someone to the appointment who can do this for you or ask if you can record the appointment.

    Try to be focused and to the point. Explain your cancer experience clearly and briefly, including symptoms and medication side effects.

    Ask the doctor to repeat a comment, to use language that is easy to understand, or even to slow down. If something is unclear, repeat it to the doctor as you have heard it. Be assertive but also be understanding. If the doctor is in a rush, ask if there is another member of the team, such as a nurse or social worker, who can answer your questions.

    Through the use of the Internet, there is an abundance of medical information as well as opportunities to connect with people in a similar situation. Doctors report that they are very aware that patients have greater access to medical information and are often more educated about their cancer and treatment than in years past. Many doctors are prepared and are available for more in-depth discussions with their patients. Keep in mind that doctors may not know all there is to know about every cancer and its treatment. Many doctors welcome information, questions and discussions of other treatments. In fact, some physicians have stated that they have learned about other treatments because of information that a patient presented.

    It is suggested to ask your doctor how he/she feels about your bringing in research and information about your cancer and asking questions about “other” treatments. This will give you some insight as to what your doctor may or may not feel comfortable discussing.

    Professional oncology social workers can help you learn to better communicate with your doctor and health care team. Call CancerCare at 800-813-HOPE (4673) to speak with a social worker.

  • I've just been diagnosed with cancer. How can I get information to help me make treatment decisions?

    There is a great deal of information about cancer and cancer treatments, especially online. The challenges are how to find and evaluate information to make sure it is reliable, up-to-date, trustworthy and appropriate to your diagnosis and situation. For cancer information, I recommend contacting The National Cancer Institute’s Cancer Information Service (CIS) to speak with an information specialist by calling 800-4-CANCER.

    To help you evaluate online information, keep these questions in mind:

    • What is the purpose of the website? Is it educational or commercial—that is, is the site trying to sell you a product or service?
    • What is the source of the information?
    • Is the information evidence-based—that is, based on scientific research?
    • Does the website provide contact information for individuals who are responsible for its content?
    • Are the links relevant and appropriate for the site?

    Once you have information, the next challenge is how to make sense of it. Ultimately, your doctor and health care team are best able to help you interpret information. Identify someone on the health care team you are comfortable talking to. Then:

    • Write down your questions before your doctor visit
    • Ask questions if you don’t understand what the doctor says
    • Take notes and if possible, bring someone with you who can assist you

    Interpreting medical tests requires that you consult with your health care team. Make sure you ask for copies of lab tests, biopsy results, X-Rays, ultrasounds, CAT and PET scans, or MRIs. Schedule time with your doctor and health care team to review all test results, and their implications for your treatment and care.

    CancerCare has a number of publications that offer practical tips:

Additional Resources