Ask the oncologist: What patients need to know about cancer
A diagnosis of cancer can seem like an endless uphill climb. The good thing is that you don’t have to battle it alone. From health care providers to friends and family, you will be surrounded by a team dedicated to helping you through this difficult time. Here’s what a Texas A&M Health Science Center College of Medicine radiation oncologist wants you to know about facing cancer together.
A thousand questions and one team
Multiple questions may swirl through your mind after hearing the word ‘cancer.’ What is the cancer? Where is it? What is the type? Is it aggressive? What is the chance of it spreading throughout the body?
“These first discussions with your physician may seem daunting, but no question is too small,” said Niloy J. Deb, M.D., Assistant Professor of Radiology with the Texas A&M College of Medicine and Chairman and Medical Director of the Department of Radiation Oncology at Baylor Scott & White Health in Temple.
“You should be able to ask any questions of your different physicians,” Deb continued. “Cancer treatment is teamwork, and good communication from patient to doctor to team is vital. Patients should also be informed upfront that they will not be treated by one physician. Come prepared to see many people.”
According to Deb, the majority of oncologists will automatically provide answers to pressing and popular questions about a cancer diagnosis and prognosis upfront; however, he encouraged patients to always make thorough inquiries about their treatment options, treatment duration and side effects. “Other questions you shouldn’t forget to ask are: What can I eat, and what activities can I do or not do?” he said.
Write this down
Deb emphasized all cancer patients should keep a notebook or journal to write down their thoughts, questions and concerns about their specific situation. “It’s imperative for patients to jot down their thought process and communicate with their physicians,” Deb said. “Whatever questions they have, I prefer for them to get their answers from me instead of relying on hearsay from others with no scientific evidence.”
“It’s not uncommon for patients to receive unsolicited advice from friends or family who mean well,” Deb continued. “When this happens, I ask my patients to thank the person for their advice and concern, but always defer back to their physician. Put the ownership on us.”
Curable or controllable?
Most of the time oncologists will opt to say a cancer is controllable rather than curable, since all cancers can run the risk of returning. A cancer is considered ‘curable’ when a physician can state with a high degree of confidence that it may not come back. A controllable cancer is a type that can be controlled short-term or long-term.
“I do not usually tell patients we will cure their cancer,” Deb said. “There are only a handful we can effectively ‘cure,’ and the reality is most cancers are controllable for various periods of time. For me, all cancers are controllable for short or longer durations.”
Coping with cancer treatment
It’s no secret that cancer treatments like radiation and chemotherapy are hard on the body—both mentally and physically. These treatments target both good and bad cells; taking a heavy toll. At this time, diet plays an instrumental role in the recovery effort. During the first few months of treatment it may be impossible to keep food down, but Deb stressed patients should try to eat properly—as their body allows.
“Your diet is supplying the bulk of your energy and nutrition. When a person is diagnosed with cancer, the needs of the body rise because the cancer cells are feeding on the body’s calories and nutrition,” he said. “Chemotherapy and radiation place a strain on the body and stress our cells. Normal cells must repair and regenerate after these therapies, and this takes extreme energy.”
Exercise also shouldn’t be overlooked. According to Deb, patients who are in better shape before beginning chemotherapy stand a much better chance of regaining their functional status quickly.
Lean on me
Who you decide to tell about your cancer diagnosis is a personal choice, but Deb said people who will be directly affected by the diagnosis should be informed. “I’ve had people who told their whole church and some patients who didn’t tell their spouses what they were going through,” he said.
It’s also important to build a support group of close friends or family who can encourage you and come to your aid when the time arises. While some cancer treatment side effects are minimal, others are not. The more severe side effects of radiation and chemotherapy will hinder daily life and patients will need to enlist help.
“I ask all of my patients if they live alone,” Deb said. “They need to understand they will need help after the first two weeks of treatment. A support system is crucial when battling cancer.”