What I Want My Patients to Know Before They Leave My Office

What I Want My Patients to Know Before They Leave My Office

Prateek Mendiratta, MD

Nov 09, 2016

This post is geared toward our patients.

When the word “cancer” is evoked and you are asked to see an oncologist, a flood of emotions can occur. Often you are even unsure of what questions to ask. I hope this blog will help create a quick reference sheet for the patients during the visit. The hope is to create a framework to have with your oncologist and empower you to be able to navigate the journey ahead.

What type of cancer do I have?

Cancer is defined as uncontrolled cell growth. Cancer cells start growing in one place and then have the potential to spread to other locations. Cancer is a very broad term. It would be like saying a car is a car. There are multiple different types of cars and multiple different types of cancer.

The major categories of cancer are carcinoma (epithelial tissue), melanomas (skin), lymphoma (lymph nodes), sarcoma (connective tissues), and leukemia (bone marrow). Carcinomas tend to originate in an organ system within the body. For example, labeling a patient with bladder cancer means that their cancer is originating from the bladder regardless of where it spreads. In some patients the tumor is not easily defined and we do not know the primary tissue of origin, or have poorly characterized tumors that can spread without a clear known primary.

Before you leave the oncologist’s office, have a clear understanding what type of cancer you have and if the primary organ system is known.

Where is the cancer located currently and what is the extent of disease?

This is also defined as the stage of the cancer. For carcinomas, the cancer is either isolated to one organ or it has spread to lymph nodes and other parts of the body. The earlier we detect cancer, the better chance for a cure. This is also true for melanomas, lymphomas, and carcinomas. For other cancers such as leukemia the stage becomes harder to define since it involves damage to the bone marrow and can spread into the blood.

We use the T (tumor), N (nodes), M (metastasis) staging system to better define tumors. We also then use stages (1 to 4), with 1 being less advanced to 4 being more advanced. Each cancer has its own staging and these systems are too extensive to discuss here, so be sure to ask your oncologist about the staging for your specific cancer.

To help evaluate where the cancer has spread, we usually get further testing throughout the body. Diagnostic tests include CT scans, PET scans, and MRIs. To better evaluate bone marrow cancers, we usually obtain bone marrow biopsies.

Before you leave the office, ask for the TNM stage or numeric stage so you have a better of sense of the extent of the cancer.

What special testing needs to be done to better characterize my tumor?

Breakthroughs are occurring every day in the field of personalized medicine. Evaluating tumor DNA and finding molecular changes are leading to more effective therapies with fewer side effects. Biomarkers are currently being utilized that enable us to guide therapy for the appropriate patient to derive a maximum response. Certain tumors, such as lung cancer, colon cancer, breast cancer, and melanoma, have specific mutations that can then guide targeted therapies. Next-generation sequencing is also looking at using whole blood to find tumor changes in the cancer DNA. This approach is exciting since it could spare patients from ever needing a tissue biopsy, which can lead to pain and other complications.

Ask your oncologist what molecular testing is indicated for your specific cancer.

What is the role of surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy in my treatment?

These three modalities form the essence of treatment in patients with cancer. Surgery involves removal of the tumor by a surgeon. Radiation is a form of targeted therapy that kills cancer cells by damaging their DNA and is typically administered by a radiation oncologist. Chemotherapy uses medications (by mouth or through the veins) to kill cancer cells and is directed by medical oncologists. Surgery and radiation are usually focused on cancer that is localized to one region. Radiation can also be used to help with symptoms once the cancer spreads. Chemotherapy usually goes throughout the body and travels to kill cancer cells. There are many types of chemotherapy that I will focus on in the future blog posts. Depending on your cancer you may need to see all three doctors or only one of them. Usually one of the doctors is the quarterback.

Make sure before you leave you have a clear sense of who you need to see, and what kinds of treatments you will receive.

Are there genetic implications with the new cancer diagnosis?

Cancers are sometimes inherited from family members due to mutations in DNA. Knowing your family history is essential before you see your oncologist. This information could have implications regarding current treatment. Some patients with mutations need more extensive surgery or respond better to certain treatments. Usually oncologists work with genetic counselors to get the family history and relay the implications of genetic testing to you. The results of certain studies could also affect future generations of your family and their risks of developing certain types of cancer. There are clear laws in place to protect patients so insurance companies cannot restrict or deny coverage based on genetic testing or diseases.

It is worth having a discussion about genetic implications with your oncologist during your visit.

Are clinical trials available?

To advance the field, we need our patients to enroll in clinical trials. Clinical trials span the spectrum of testing new drugs or combinations in patients in first-line or refractory settings. Not all patients are eligible for clinical trials. Also, specific clinical trials are only offered at certain hospitals. Risk profiles differ amongst clinical trials and there should be extensive conversations with regards to the risks, benefits, and alternatives before enrolling in a clinical trial. The current cancer drugs that are changing the landscape and prolonging lives are all born out of the sacrifices of patients with cancer who were courageous enough to enroll in these trials. Not every patient needs a trial. Every cancer and every patient is different; but it is worth exploring options that may exist for you.

Is there a possibility to discuss my case in a multidisciplinary tumor board?

The majority of cancer centers have conferences where cases and treatment plans can be discussed. These conferences usually involve the radiologist, pathologist, medical oncologist, surgeon, and radiation oncologist. They can review imaging and pathology and work together to discuss and coordinate treatment plans. Treatment options are usually discussed until there is a clear consensus among the experts as to which treatment is the best. Usually conferences are weekly or monthly and it is worth discussing with your oncologist. This is especially for newly diagnosed patients or patients with tumors that are progressing.

What is the proposed treatment plan and next steps?

Before you leave the oncologist’s office, it is essential to review with your oncologist, in your own words, what the plan is for your treatment. If further testing is needed, try to get a sense of why the testing is indicated. Learn the best way to get in touch with the doctor in case you have future questions. The visits are complicated and stressful, and there is a lot of information to process all in a short time period. Take notes and you will be better prepared for the journey. You are an essential part of the team and the better informed you are, the better your oncologist can do.

Originally published on Cancer Doc in Evolution; reprinted with permission.


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