Cancer Patients Should Ask Doctors to Use Simple
WEDNESDAY, Sept. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer patients are
often faced with many difficult-to-understand treatment choices
that can have serious side effects and even mean the difference
between life and death.
That's why it's crucial that patients insist doctors use plain
language in explaining the options, advised Angela Fagerlin, an
associate professor of internal medicine at the University of
Michigan Medical School and a researcher at the U-M Comprehensive
"People are making life and death decisions that may affect their survival and they need to know what they're getting themselves into. 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 said in a university news release.
She and her colleagues outlined a number of tips to help
patients get the information they need to make an informed
decision. These tips, published in the Sept. 19 online edition of
Journal of the National Cancer Institute, include the following:
- If you don't understand something, ask doctors to explain it
again using simpler terms. "Doctors don't know when patients don't
understand them. They want patients to stop them and ask
questions," Fagerlin said in the news release.
- Focus on the absolute risk. There is often more than one way of
stating the same statistic. A doctor might say, "This drug will cut
your risk in half." Another way of stating that same fact is: "The
drug will lower your risk from 4 percent to 2 percent." A patient
armed with that information knows that their absolute risk is
rather small to begin with, and can make a better decision. "It's
important that patients and doctors know how to communicate these
numbers, and patients need to have the courage to ask their doctor
to present it so they can understand," Fagerlin said.
- Ask about additional risk. You may be told the risk of a
certain side effect occurring is 7 percent. But if you didn't take
the drug, is there a chance you'd still experience that side
effect? Patients should remember to ask what the additional, or
incremental, risk of a treatment is so they can make better
- Take notes. The amount of information given to cancer patients
can be overwhelming. Either write it down, or at the end of a
discussion, ask your doctor for a written summary of the risks and
benefits. That way you can go home, have time to digest the
information and make your decision.
- Don't pay too much attention to averages. Research that
estimates the risk of getting a certain disease is often based on
large groups of people, or populations, such as "people over 65
years old." But your individual risk may be lower or higher than
the average risk depending on your genes, overall health, other
conditions you may have, smoking status, etc. Your personal risk is
what matters most, not the average risk.
- In some cases, there may be many different treatment options,
but only a few may be relevant. Patients should ask their doctor to
discuss options most pertinent to their individual situation.
The American Cancer Society has more about
cancer treatments and side effects.
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Please be aware that this information is provided to supplement the care provided by your physician. It is neither intended nor implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice. CALL YOUR HEALTHCARE PROVIDER IMMEDIATELY IF YOU THINK YOU MAY HAVE A MEDICAL EMERGENCY. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider prior to starting any new treatment or with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.