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Communicating With Your Health Care Team

Keeping an open line of communication between you and your doctor is critical. It’s vital that you have the information you need in order to make important decisions about your medical care and treatment. While you may want to learn and know more about your illness and possible treatments, it’s not always easy to know what to ask your doctor.

Here are some suggestions on getting the information you need:

Ask a family member or friend to go to your appointment with you. Taking someone along whom you’re comfortable with can make the visit less stressful and help you remember what the doctor tells you. Be sure that the person you ask to accompany you has the ability to provide emotional support, the capacity to listen and remember accurately, and the skill to think objectively.

Take notes during the visit. Take notes (or have someone do it for you) carefully enough so that they will make sense to you when you get home. If you don’t understand something, ask the doctor to repeat it. Writing down your questions before your appointment is also a good idea. You’ll be more focused and less stressed when making note of your concerns.

Visualize what is being explained to you. Pictures often speak louder than words. Ask your doctor to show you an illustration that will help you understand where your cancer is, how tests will be performed, and how your cancer will be treated. Ask to take a copy home to make it easier to explain to your family.

Ask for explanation in language familiar to you. You can be an effective partner in your treatment and recovery only if you understand what is being said.

Ask how you can learn more. Your doctor can refer you to written material, videotapes, websites or other resources to help you better understand your illness, procedure or treatment.

Rephrase your question and/or the doctor’s answer. If you don’t understand the doctor’s answer to your question, ask it in a different way. Or ask the doctor to explain the answer differently. Verbalize what you heard, and repeat to the doctor what you thought he or she said. This gives the doctor feedback on what you heard, and if necessary, an opportunity to clear up any communication problems.

Take a small tape recorder with you. Ask your doctor in advance if you can record your session. Explain that it would help you better understand and follow the information and advice you are receiving. This will also allow you to be more at ease during your appointment, since it will free you from note taking.


Doctors are trained to diagnose and talk about diseases. What patients and families want to know is personalized information about their illness. If you don’t ask questions, you may lack necessary information to be successful in this journey. So don’t be shy. Your healthcare team needs to hear from you.

Here is a list of questions you might need or what to ask your doctor:

  • What exactly is this illness?
  • What usually happens with this illness? 
  • What are the usual treatment options? 
  • How effective are they?
  • What happens with a particular treatment?
  • Are these all my options?
  • What happens if I do nothing?
  • What about non-medical treatments? 
  • Am I likely to have severe pain? If so, can it be controlled? 
  • What are some of the physical and emotional effects my illness or treatments will have on me? 
  • How long will I have to be treated for what I have? 
  • How will I know what decisions to make?