A breast cancer diagnosis often opens up a world of uncertainty for patients, but health care professionals say those who find themselves battling the disease can better equip themselves for the road ahead by confronting the unknown, head on.
“The best way to get past that initial fear of a diagnosis is to ask questions,” Dr. Azmina Patel with Texas Oncology in Sherman said.
Once a diagnosis is known, Patel said patients usually begin by asking about the basics of their illness.
“First and foremost, people ask what type of cancer they have and at what stage is the cancer,” Patel said. “A lot of times, patients want to know where the cancer is, specifically and whether it has spread to other parts of the body. Other questions center on the treatment options and what the goals are with those treatments. And when we discuss the available treatments, patients usually ask about risks and benefits of each of those.”
Dr. Vaishali Kent, a breast surgical oncologist on the medical staff at Texas Health Harris Methodist Hospital Southwest Fort Worth, said for many, the news can be overwhelming and hard to understand. When that’s the case, Kent said it helps to bring someone along who’s willing to ask questions on behalf of the patient.
“Usually it’s like a deer in the headlights when patients first get diagnosed,” Kent said. “They don’t hear everything that’s discussed, or they’ll ask a question but will already be thinking about the next one and can’t really process all the answers. So bring a friend or family member there to take notes and ask questions.”
Kent said once a patient understands his or her doctor’s suggested approach, it’s good to take stock of how he or she feels about the plan and consider whether the patient wants another medical professional to weigh in.
“It’s never wrong to get a second opinion,” Kent said. “If you want to confirm what’s going on and what your doctor is telling you, the best way to make sure you’re doing the right thing is to ask for a medical professional’s opinion. And rather than go on the internet and look at all kinds of different websites, it’s better to get your second opinion from somebody who is an expert.”
Patel said while there are many widely-known treatments that have proven to be effective, patients may also benefit by asking their doctors about available alternatives.
“It’s also important for them to ask whether a clinical trial would be appropriate for their situation,” Patel said. “With some of these diagnoses, clinical trials are often the best way to treat some of these patients.”
Kent said there are many factors that may influence the outcome of a patient’s treatment, but she’d like to see those patients take more interest in their nutrition and physical activity as it too could have significant benefits.
“I do wish that people would ask more questions and become more invested about this aspect of their treatment,” Kent said. “There’s a lot of good data to show that healthy diet and exercise is really important, not just for breast cancer but for overall good health. That’s the part where I think patients tend to trail off.”
While the complexity of breast cancer and its treatment may be daunting, Patel said patients should always feel comfortable reaching out to their doctors and asking about the next steps.
“It’s OK to ask questions,” Patel said. “Don’t be afraid, don’t ever feel like yours is a stupid question or that you have too many questions.”