If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, you probably have a lot of questions about your particular disease and what lies ahead. The first step is making an appointment with an oncologist — a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. The knowledgeable staff at our Physician Access Service can help you identify and make an appointment with the most appropriate oncologist to meet your specific needs.
Depending on the type and stage of your disease, your first appointment will usually be with a surgical oncologist, a medical oncologist, or a radiation oncologist. Any one of these specialists can help you better understand your diagnosis and treatment options and work with you to make informed decisions about your care.
We asked Suzanne Carmody, Director of MSK’s Physician Access Service, to explain what you can do to prepare for that first encounter.
What’s the most important thing I should do before my first meeting with my oncologist?
The first thing the oncologist will ask about is your medical history. When you get into the doctor’s office, it’s very easy to forget when things happened, so it’s helpful to write down your history to remember the timeline of events. Keep notes about your symptoms and what made you go to your doctor in the first place. What tests did your doctor order? Were you referred to additional specialists? Have you previously been treated for cancer?Back to top
What should I bring with me?
In order to make it a thorough consultation, the oncologist you’re meeting with should have all your reports and other requested materials. This includes copies of scans, x-rays, MRIs, CTs, or other imaging tests that were done, and pathology slides if a biopsy was performed.
In addition, we always ask that you bring in any medications you take, including over-the-counter pain relievers, vitamins, herbs, and supplements. Rather than just making a list, we ask that you bring in the actual medicines so we can note the dosages. Before recommending a treatment, doctors have to know what you’re taking in order to make sure there are no potential interactions. People may forget things like calcium and vitamin D, but those can interfere with some treatments.
We encourage you to take notes during your appointment. If you can, bring someone with you — a family member or a friend — to be another set of ears in the room. In addition to providing emotional support, they can help you remember what the doctor says, take notes for you, and remind you of key questions that you don’t want to forget to ask.Back to top
What are those key questions?
I think the most important thing to do is to listen to what your oncologist has to say, because a lot of your questions may get answered, and listening closely may make you think of additional questions.
Having said that, here are some things that are helpful to discuss during your first appointment:
- What is my diagnosis and how soon do I need to start therapy?
- What are my treatment options, what’s involved, and how long will each treatment take?
- What are the benefits of the recommended treatment?
- What are its potential risks and side effects?
- Should I consider participating in a clinical trial?
- How will treatment affect my daily routine? Can I continue to work through treatment?
- Will treatment impact my fertility? If so, is there anything I can do to protect my ability to have children in the future?
- What should I do if I develop new symptoms after I begin treatment?
- What support resources are available to help me cope with my diagnosis?
- Whom should I call if I have additional questions after I leave the office?
Can I expect my oncologist to give me a sense of my prognosis during my first appointment?
Yes, as part of your consultation, your physician will discuss your disease, treatment options, and prognosis. Your prognosis [the doctor’s prediction of how you’ll recover from your illness] depends on the type of cancer, the stage of your disease when first diagnosed, and your response to treatment. Some cancers are not curable but may be treatable with therapies that provide you with as much quality of life as possible.
Physicians are honest and hopeful, so even if the general statistics look discouraging, each individual is unique and may respond differently to therapy. Depending on your response, your oncologist may recommend a newly approved treatment or a novel drug being evaluated in clinical trials. We see people do better than expected every day.Back to top
Where can I get more information about making and preparing for an appointment with a doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering?
You can visit our website at www.mskcc.org to learn more about your type of cancer, how our physicians care for our patients, how to make an appointment, and more details on how to prepare for your first visit. You may also call our Physician Access Service at 800-225-2225.Back to top