Making Well-Informed Choices Concerning Cancer Care

Discussing cancer and cancer treatment options with your physician can feel like learning a new language. People facing cancer diagnoses often need support in understanding their options, and weighing the risks and benefits of each decision.

According to Angela Fagerlin, Ph.D., associate professor at the University of Michigan Medical School, people must make life and death decisions that may impact their survival and they need to understand what they are getting themselves into. She states, “Cancer treatments and tests can be serious. Patients need to know what kind of side effects they might experience as a result of the treatment they undergo.”

Fagerlin and her associates have published commentary in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute that underscores a list of things health care professionals can do to facilitate better communication practices concerning information and treatment risks for patients. This list explains how patients can use these same practices to improve their fluency in the language of cancer and improve their understanding of their options.

1. Ask the doctor to explain concepts using simple language. If something the doctor says is unclear, ask the doctor to clarify using plain language. Fagerlin adds, “Doctors don’t know when patients don’t understand them. They want patients to stop them and ask questions.”

2. Ask the doctor for ‘absolute risk.’ Sometimes doctors use relative risk statements like “this drug will cut your risk by a third.” However, if the doctor used the phrase, “the drug will lower your risk from 6 percent to 4 percent,” then you would have a clearer picture of what types of risks you would be facing.

3. It matters what order you hear information. There have been studies that demonstrated that the last thing a person hears is the one most likely to be remembered. When you are making a decision concerning treatment, it’s important to consider all information and statistics you have learned. If the amount of information is overwhelming, ask the physician to help you narrow down the treatment options most relevant to you.

4. Write it all down. It may be a lot of information to swallow at once. By the end of your discussion with your physician, ask if a written summary of the risks and benefits is available. Or request that your physician help you summarize all the provided information in writing.


5. Don’t get tripped up by averages. Several studies have demonstrated that learning the average risk of a disease does little for helping patients make the best decisions for themselves. The only risk that matters is your own. Focus only on information that applies exclusively to you.

With a careful and thorough understanding of your condition and the treatment options available, you and your doctor can begin making a custom-tailored treatment plan suited for your unique circumstances.

Elijah Lamond


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