From your first visit to after diagnosis and treatment
By Cathy Nelson
Published on June 09, 2023
Medically reviewed by Gagandeep Brar, MD
If you’ve been told you have breast cancer, it’s important to ask your doctor and other healthcare providers questions so you thoroughly understand your diagnosis, treatment plan options, and what you can expect throughout treatment and recovery.
Because this can be an overwhelming time, it’s a good idea to write down any questions you have in advance and bring them with you to your medical appointments. Bring a notepad so you can write down the answers to your questions. If possible, bring a family member or friend with you to appointments as well.
This article will go over questions to ask after you initially receive a breast cancer diagnosis, before, during, and after treatment, before and after surgery, and when all treatments are completed.
A cancer care team is made up of different types of healthcare providers. In addition to an oncologist, providers you might see if you have breast cancer include:1
- A breast surgeon or surgical oncologist
- A radiation oncologist
- A medical oncologist
- A plastic surgeon
Other members of your care team can include physician assistants, nurse practitioners, nurses, mental health professionals, nutritionists, social workers, and patient/nurse navigators.
Questions to Ask: After Diagnosis
If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll want to learn more about your type of breast cancer, treatment options, and support. If your primary healthcare provider suspects you might have cancer, they will likely refer you to an oncologist (a doctor specializing in diagnosing and treating cancer).2
The following are initial questions to ask your oncologist:
- What type of breast cancer do I have?
- Where exactly is it in my breast?
- What is the stage of my breast cancer? Has it spread to my lymph nodes or elsewhere in my body?
- What is the hormone receptor status of my cancer?
- How can I have a copy of my pathology report?
- Do I need further testing before treatment?
- Should I have a tumor profiling test? Why or why not?
- Should I talk to a genetic counselor or undergo genetic testing?
- What other doctors or healthcare providers will I see?
- Are there options for more than one treatment for my type of cancer?
- What treatment plan do you recommend?
- What are the benefits, risks, and side effects of recommended treatments?
- How much experience do you have in treating my type of cancer?
- Should I get a second opinion, and how? Will that delay my treatment and is it safe to do so?
- What is the prognosis for my type and stage of cancer?
- Are there any clinical trials I might want to consider?
- Who can help me go over my insurance coverage for my care?
- Who can help me if I’m concerned about costs?
- What mental health support resources are available to me?
- Are there any support groups you can recommend?
What About Genetic Testing?
Genetic testing can help determine if your breast cancer or family history of breast cancer is due to an inherited gene mutation, which can help guide treatment. Only 5–10% of breast cancers are related to an inherited gene mutation. Questions to ask your doctor about genetic testing include:
- Should I consider genetic testing or see a genetic counselor?
- What are my testing options?
- How might my family history affect my current and future cancer risk?
Questions to Ask: Treatment
Treatments for breast cancer include surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy, and immunotherapy.1 Treatments can be given separately or combined. Your treatment options will depend on your type of cancer, its stage, your health, and other factors.
It's important to ask questions to your radiation oncologist, medical oncologist, and surgical oncologist or breast surgeon before, during, and after treatment.
Questions to ask before treatment include:
- How soon do I need to start treatment?
- Where will I receive treatments?
- How long will each treatment last? How long will I need treatment?
- What are the treatment’s benefits, risks, and side effects?
- How will this treatment affect my daily life? Work life?
- Will this treatment put me in menopause?
- Will having this treatment affect my chances of having children?
- How successful is this treatment for my type of cancer?
Questions to ask during treatment include;
- How do I know if the treatment is working?
- What tests might I need during treatment?
- For which side effects should I contact you? Are there any that require emergency medical attention?
- Is there anything I can do to help myself feel better during treatment? To manage side effects?
- Are there any complementary therapies that might help me during treatment?
- Are there mental health resources to help me during treatment?
Questions to ask after treatment include:
- Do I have any post-treatment limitations? How long will they last?
- What can I do to reduce my risk for lymphedema?
- Are there any post-treatment side effects or symptoms? When should I seek medical attention for them?
- Do I need follow-up appointments or tests?
- What happens if the treatment didn't work as expected?
Make sure to ask your healthcare providers how you can communicate or ask questions outside of scheduled appointment times. Find out if there are options such as email, patient portals, or after-hours phone services available and how you can access them.
Questions to Ask: Surgery
Surgery is a part of breast cancer treatment for most people.5 Types of surgeries include breast-conserving surgery (lumpectomy) to remove the tumor and surrounding tissue, mastectomy to remove the entire breast, breast reconstruction surgery, and procedures to remove lymph nodes.6
If you’re having surgery, there are specific questions you should ask your breast surgeon or surgical oncologist before and after your surgery.
Questions to ask before surgery include:
- How many surgeries that are similar to mine have you performed? Are you board certified?
- Am I a candidate for more than one type of breast surgery?
- What are the risks and benefits of any surgeries for which I'm a candidate?
- Will you have to remove any lymph nodes?
- Do you recommend a sentinel lymph node biopsy? What are the benefits and risks?
- Will my tumor be subject to any testing? If so, which tests, and what do we expect to learn from them?
- Is it possible I will need further treatments after surgery?
- When and how will I receive my pathology report?
- What will my recovery be like in the hospital and at home?
- What will my breasts look like after surgery? What about scars?
- Am I a candidate for breast reconstruction? Can I have it at the same time as my other surgery?
What Is a Patient Advocate?
A patient advocate is an important resource for assisting you with healthcare decisions, problems, coordination of care, and more. Different types of patient advocates include those affiliated with nonprofit organizations, for-profit organizations, or hospitals. In addition, private patient advocates can be hired on an individual basis.
Questions to ask after surgery include:
- Were you able to remove all of the cancer?
- Were any lymph nodes removed?
- Who can go over my pathology report with me?
- Do you anticipate that I'll need further surgery? Further treatment?
- What post-surgery symptoms might I experience? How long should they last?
- What complications or side effects might I have? When should I seek medical care if I experience them?
- Do I have any restrictions? When can I resume normal activities?
Questions to Ask: When All Treatments Are Done
When you complete your treatment, you will still need to make follow-up appointments. You can ask any doctors or other healthcare providers who are involved in your follow-up care the following questions:
- What types of follow-up tests and appointments do I need? When and for how long?
- Are there any long-term side effects? When do I need to contact you if I experience any?
- What are the chances the cancer will come back after treatment?
- What will we do if the cancer comes back?
- What are the chances I will develop another type of cancer after treatment?
- Can I do anything to lower my risk of cancer returning?
- Are there any survivor support groups you can recommend?
- Are there mental health resources that can support me after treatment?
Though a breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming, it's important to ask questions throughout every stage of your care. It's a good idea to write down questions in advance of your medical appointments. Make sure you have a list of questions to ask after your initial diagnosis, throughout treatment, before and after surgery, and when your treatments are complete.
Remember, you are the most important member of your healthcare team. Don’t ever be afraid to ask your doctors and other healthcare providers questions about your diagnosis, treatment, recovery, or anything else that concerns you. Doing so will help you make informed decisions about your cancer care.
Posted in: In Treatment, Just Diagnosed, Medical/Science, Post Treatment, Survivorship