Questions to ask your oncologist at the first visit

Breast cancer treatment means making choices about your care together with your doctor. Clear, open communication can help both of you come up with a treatment plan. 

Let your doctor know what’s important to you in your life, and be as honest as you can. Sharing concerns and asking questions about your treatment options means you’re actively participating in your care. When you feel safe to share and communicate with your doctor, you’re building one of the most trusted relationships you’ll have in your life. 

We know it can feel overwhelming to figure out how to prepare and what to ask at your oncology appointments, so we’ve created this guide to help make things easier.

How to prepare for the visit

We know that medical appointments can often feel rushed. To get the most out of your time with your cancer care team, here are some ways to prepare:

  • Write down your questions and bring them with you. On this page, we’ll share some questions you can ask.
  • Bring a notebook and pen so you can take notes.
  • If you prefer to make an audio recording of the visit on your phone or a recorder, ask your doctor’s permission before recording. 
  • Ask a friend or family member to come with you so you can have a second pair of ears. You can also ask that person to take notes while you’re talking with your doctor. 
  • Ask to meet with the nurse navigator, who works to coordinate your care with different team members at different phases of treatment. Nurse navigators can
    • help you with insurance issues
    • help you find financial resources
    • arrange transportation to and from appointments
    • coordinate fertility preservation services
    • connect you with emotional support resources
    • point you to complementary care services such as acupuncture, yoga, meditation, writing groups, or art therapy that may be available at your care center
    • be an advocate for you if you experience difficulty within the hospital system

Tips for getting your questions answered

Here are some ways to make sure you’re getting all the information you need during your appointment:

  • Let your doctor know if anything they say is confusing to you. Ask for clarification or further explanation.
  • Ask your doctor to recommend additional resources such as websites or printed materials that may be available at your cancer center. 
  • If you’ve done online research on your own, bring links or printouts to your appointment and ask your doctor about the reliability of what you’ve found. While there are many reputable sources online, there are also many sources that aren’t accurate or up to date.    

Questions to ask your oncologist

Diagnosis, treatment, and the rest of your life, you’ll go through many phases and it’s normal to have questions about all of them. We’re here for you with questions you can ask your doctor when you’re ready to have those conversations.

Diagnosis

  • Can you provide me a copy of my pathology report?
  • What type of breast cancer do I have?
  • What is the stage of the breast cancer?
  • What is the size of the cancer?
  • How far has the cancer spread?
  • Has the cancer spread to any lymph nodes?
  • Has the cancer traveled outside the breast to any other organs?
  • Does the cancer have hormone receptors? (Hormone receptor-positive breast cancer grows in response to the hormones estrogen and progesterone.)
  • Is the cancer HER2-positive? (HER2-positive breast cancer makes too much of a protein called HER2, and can be more aggressive than other breast cancers.)
  • Do I need to have more tests before we decide what treatment is best?
  • Would I benefit from genetic testing to learn whether I have an inherited breast cancer genetic mutation?
  • Do I qualify for genomic tests (testing the genetic activity in a tumor) to learn about my risk of recurrence?
  • What are my chances of survival over the long term?
  • Are there other doctors I need to see?

Deciding on a treatment plan

  • How long have you been treating my type of cancer?
  • What treatment options do you recommend for me? Why?
  • How do these treatments work?
  • Are there any clinical trials that might benefit me?
  • What are the chances that the cancer could come back after treatment?
  • What are the most common side effects of the treatments you’re recommending?
  • How can I manage these side effects?
  • How soon will I need to begin treatment?
  • How long will treatment last?
  • Will I need to take time off from work, or can I work through treatment?
  • Are there any activity restrictions I’ll need to follow?
  • Will I need extra help at home during treatment?
  • I’m concerned about losing my hair due to chemotherapy. Can you tell me about resources for preventing hair loss or managing it? 
  • Will this treatment cause early menopause or menopausal symptoms?
  • I’m concerned about how treatment might impact my ability to have children in the future. Can you direct me to an oncology fertility clinic so I can understand my options?
  • Will I be able to breastfeed after treatment?
  • Can you direct me to someone who can help me understand whether my insurance or other resources can cover treatment costs?
  • If I decide to seek a second opinion about the treatments you’ve recommended, what do I need to do?
  • Are there any other ways I need to prepare for treatment?
  • What if the treatment doesn’t work or the cancer comes back later? 

Surgery

  • Are you a board-certified surgeon?
  • What type of surgery do you recommend for my diagnosis?
  • How long have you been performing this type of surgery?
  • What are the side effects of the surgery you’re recommending?
  • How soon will I need surgery? 
  • Are there any medicines or supplements I need to stop taking before surgery?
  • Is there an option for me to have a lumpectomy (breast-conserving surgery) instead of mastectomy? 
  • What are the risks and benefits of lumpectomy versus mastectomy?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • Will you need to remove any lymph nodes?
  • If so, what do I need to know about side effects of lymph node surgery?
  • Will I need to stay overnight in the hospital?
  • How will I feel after surgery?
  • Will there be stitches or staples in my incision? 
  • How do I take care of the incisions at home?
  • Will a drain (tube) be placed at the site of the surgery?
  • How do I take care of the drain at home? 
  • Will I need extra help as I recover at home? How should I prepare?
  • Are there recovery exercises I will need to do at home after surgery?
  • What will my breast look and feel like after surgery? 
  • Will I have scars?
  • Will I still have normal feeling in my breast?
  • Is breast reconstruction an option for me? If so, can you refer me to a breast reconstruction surgeon?
  • Is it possible for me to have breast reconstruction at the same time as mastectomy? 
  • Is there any reason I may need to wait to have breast reconstruction?
  • I don’t want reconstruction. Are there any side effects of mastectomy without reconstruction that are different from side effects of mastectomy with reconstruction?
  • Can you explain what a breast form is and where I can get one if I decide I want one?
  • Does insurance cover breast forms after mastectomy?
  • If I’m having side effects after surgery, when should I call your office? 
  • Are there any side effects that are serious enough to call your after-hours phone number or go to the emergency room?
  • When will my first follow-up visit be?

During treatment

These questions apply mainly to undergoing treatment other than surgery, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.

  • What can I do to manage the side effects of this treatment?
  • Are there symptoms or side effects I should let you know about immediately? 
  • How can I get in touch with you at times when your office is closed?
  • Are there any limits on my normal activities while I’m undergoing this treatment?
  • Can I exercise while I’m undergoing this treatment?
  • Is there anything I need to change about my diet during treatment? 
  • Will I need any imaging tests or blood work during this treatment?
  • Is there a way to know if the treatment is working?  
  • If I need extra emotional support during treatment, can you recommend a psychologist or other mental health specialist?

After treatment

  • Can we create a survivorship care plan?
  • After I’m finished with treatment, what follow-up visit schedule do you recommend? 
  • What follow-up exams, imaging tests, or bloodwork do you recommend? When should I schedule these?
  • Are there any special exercises that would help me after treatment is complete?
  • Are there any restrictions on my normal activities after treatment is done?
  • Are there any diet or nutrition changes I need to consider after treatment?
  • What is my risk for lymphedema?
  • What steps can I take to reduce my risk of lymphedema?
  • If I notice that my hand, arm, or surgical site is swelling, what should I do?
  • Are there signs and symptoms to watch for that may mean the cancer has come back?
  • If the cancer returns, what options will I have?
  • Does this hospital have a survivorship care center or department?