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Cancer Treatment Decisions: 5 Steps to Help You Decide

Dr. Harish P
, Consultant – Medical Oncology

You’ve just been diagnosed with cancer. Your mind is reeling. And now your doctor wants you to sort through cancer treatment options and help decide on a plan. But how do you decide on a cancer treatment plan?

Here are 5 steps to guide you in making informed cancer treatment decisions

Step 1: Take your family and friends along
Step 2: Decide on a goal
Step 3: Analyze the benefits versus risks
Step 4: Communicate with your doctor

Step 5: Do not hurry; Nothing is going to happen today

It is important to understand that it’s a journey, the doctor acts as your guide, and you are the decision-maker.

Step 1: Take your family and friends along

  • There’s no need to hide the fact that you’re diagnosed with cancer. It doesn’t spread from one person to another. In fact, it is beneficial if your dear ones are with you at this time.
  • Decide how much you want to know. While most people want to know what exactly is going to be the treatment plan and their survival chances, others don’t. If you don’t want to know all the details, let your doctor know.
  • You don’t need to be involved in making treatment decisions. If you prefer, tell your doctor you’d rather not be involved in the decision-making process. You can always get involved later when you feel more comfortable with the situation. Let your cancer specialist know who should decide about your care.
  • Have realistic expectations. Your doctor can give you estimates about what you can expect to get from each type of treatment method. Don’t just ignore them.
  • Accept help. You’ll need support throughout your treatment. Support can come from your doctor, your friends and your family.
  • It might help to write down your expectations and preferences before you meet with your doctor. That might help you better express your hopes for and feelings about your cancer treatment.

Step 2: Decide on a goal

Deciding what you want out of treatment is very crucial because that’ll help you narrow your treatment choices.
Are you hoping for a cure, stabilization or solely symptom relief?

Depending on your cancer type and stage, your goals for treatment might be:

  • Cure. When you’re first diagnosed, it’s likely you’ll be interested in treatments that cure cancer. When a cure is possible, you may be willing to endure more short-term side effects in return for a chance at a cure.
  • Control. If your cancer is at a later stage or if previous treatments have been unsuccessful, you might adjust your goal to control your cancer. Different treatments may attempt to temporarily shrink or stop your cancer from growing. If this is your goal, you might NOT be willing to endure the side effects of harsher treatments.
  • Comfort. If you are diagnosed with cancer which is at an advanced stage or one that hasn’t responded to treatments, you might decide that comfort is most important to you. You and your doctor can then work together to make sure you are free of pain and other symptoms.

Step 3: Analyze the benefits versus risks

Compare the benefits and risks of the different cancer treatments to decide which treatment options will meet your goal. Rate the treatments you’re considering based on the pros and cons of each.

Some aspects you’ll want to consider for each treatment include:

  • What are the side effects of cancer treatment? Take time to review the side effects of each treatment and decide whether they’ll be worth enduring or too much to handle. Your doctor can give you an idea of how common the various side effects are for each treatment and explain various options for managing the side effects to make treatment more tolerable.
  • How is cancer treatment going to affect your daily life? Will you need a few days off work or several weeks off? How will your role in your family change? Will you need to travel for your treatment? How will treatment affect your ability to find or keep employment?
  • What are the financial costs of cancer treatment? Investigate what types of treatment will be covered by your insurance. If a treatment or an aspect of a treatment isn’t covered, can you afford it? Call your insurance company to be sure.
  • How is your health in general? If you have other health conditions, ask your doctor how the treatment will affect those conditions.

Your personal values and goals will make a difference in what treatments are best for you. Only YOU can decide what type of treatment will fit best in your life. But you don’t have to make a choice and stick with it. It’s possible for you to change your mind during treatment, and that’s fine.

Step 4: Communicate with your doctor

Effective communication with your doctor is the best way to ensure you’re getting all the information you need, so you make an informed decision.

To make communication with your doctor easier, try to:

  • Speak up when you don’t understand. If you need further explanation or clarification, tell your doctor. If you don’t speak up, your doctor may think you understand.
  • Write your questions in advance. Appointments can be stressful and emotional. Don’t expect to remember all the questions you want to ask.
  • Record your conversations. Try to keep track of what your doctor tells you by taking notes. Please ask if it’s OK to record the conversation. You can refer to the conversation later if you have questions.
  • Bring someone with you. If you feel comfortable sharing your medical information with a friend or family member, bring along someone to take notes. That way, you’ll have another person to talk through your treatment decisions with.
  • Keep copies of your medical records. Ask for copies of your medical records and bring them to each appointment. Don’t EXPECT you and your doctor to fully understand each other after one meeting; it may take a few conversations before you both feel as if you’re on the same page.

Step 5: Do not hurry; Nothing is going to happen today

  • Take your time. Although a cancer diagnosis might make you feel as if you have to make immediate decisions to begin therapy, in most situations, you have time to make choices. Ask your doctor how much time you have to decide.
  • You can always change your mind. Making a treatment decision now doesn’t bind you to that option. Tell your doctor if you’re having second thoughts. Significant side effects may make you want to change your treatment plan.
  • You can seek a second opinion. Don’t be afraid of offending your doctor if you want to get a second opinion. Most doctors understand the need for a second opinion when facing a major decision. Also, you can go back to your primary doctor after taking the second opinion. No doctor feels offended.
  • You don’t need to get treated. Some people choose not to have treatment at all. People with very advanced cancers sometimes find they’d rather treat the pain and other side effects of their cancer so that they can make the best of the time they have remaining.

If you choose not to be treated, you can always change your mind. Forgoing treatment doesn’t mean you’ll be left on your own — many ways of controlling side effects exist.

Which treatment is best for you? There’s no right or wrong answer. But being involved with your treatment plan may give you greater peace of mind and can let you focus your energy on what you need to do most — keeping yourself healthy throughout your treatment.