After a cancer diagnosis, patients and their families have many decisions to make in a short time. Where do I go for treatment? What costs will be covered by insurance? What about travel expenses? As a cancer patient, you are urged to take an active role in your care, and make treatment decisions that are best for you and your loved ones.
Consider the following issues before choosing a cancer treatment.
If you have been diagnosed with cancer by your primary care physician, it is wise to get a second opinion from a cancer specialist. In fact, many health insurance plans require a second opinion before covering some treatment costs. If the specialist agrees with the first diagnosis, they can let you know the available treatment options for your cancer.
A prognosis is a cancer specialist's best estimate of how your disease will respond to treatment, and what your life expectancy may be. Some patients whose cancer is discovered in the early stages may only need minor treatment. Others with advanced cancer may have few treatment options, if any, or may have an aggressive cancer with a low survival rate.
Patients who receive the worst news may proceed with treatment anyway; others may refuse treatment. Whatever decision you make, consider the wishes of loved ones, and talk it over with your cancer care team.
Because cancer treatment involves sophisticated techniques, machinery and medicine, it can be very expensive. Some treatments require a hospital stay of one night or more, which adds on to the overall cost. Health insurance and managed care plans rarely cover all the costs of cancer treatment, so it’s important to find out what is and is not covered by your policy. Uncovered expenses are the patient’s responsibility.
Cancer patients travel from all over the world to be treated at MD Anderson, and many bring family members, sometimes for an extended stay. Travel and lodging costs can add up quickly, and must be considered along with treatment expenses.
MD Anderson’s Patient Travel Service offers discounts with some airlines, hotels and ground transportation, and a full-service travel agency to handle patient needs. Call 1-888-848-9992 for information.
MD Anderson also has several treatment locations in the greater Houston area that may be more convenient.
Advance Care Planning
It is important to have a clear understanding of your cancer diagnosis and treatment goals. Advance care planning allows you to identify your preferences for care and how they should be handled if you become unable to do so. It helps to discuss this information with your family and healthcare team and complete the necessary advance directives before treatment begins.
Advance directives include the Medical Power of Attorney, Living Will and Out of Hospital Do-Not-Resuscitate orders.
- Learn more about advance care planning
Some newly-diagnosed patients may be eligible to join a clinical trial. These carefully controlled studies test new drugs or treatments that may be as good or better than standard care. Clinical trials have provided new hope for some people whose cancer has not responded to traditional treatments. MD Anderson has hundreds of clinical trials underway at any given time.
If you decide to proceed with cancer treatment, then it's time to choose an oncologist (cancer doctor) and a hospital where the treatment will be carried out. Why choose MD Anderson?
The test results are back. You’ve talked to the doctor and learned you have cancer.
Whether it’s your first cancer diagnosis or your fifth, your reaction to a new cancer diagnosis often comes down to a single question: What do I do now?
To help you navigate your next steps after a new cancer diagnosis, we spoke with Ehab Hanna, M.D., a skull base tumor specialist.
Step 1: Get the facts about your cancer diagnosis
The first thing to do after a cancer diagnosis is gather information. Find out exactly what type of cancer you have and how advanced it is. Ask where the cancer is located in your body and whether it’s considered rare or common, fast- or slow-growing. The answers to these questions will help you make informed decisions about your treatment.
“Getting the diagnosis right is the most important step,” says Hanna, noting that an accurate diagnosis will ensure you get the right treatment from the start. “You cannot play catch-up with cancer. If the train is on the wrong track, that just means you’re reaching the wrong destination faster.”
If your doctor seems uncertain about your diagnosis, seek a second opinion from a hospital like MD Anderson that specializes in cancer.
“Your first shot is your best shot at beating cancer, so where you go first matters,” Hanna says. “Getting the right treatment from the beginning gives you the best chance of survival.”
Step 2: Explore your treatment options
Once you have an accurate diagnosis, ask your doctor what your treatment options are — and which ones might work best for you. Find out which side effects you can expect from each treatment option and how they could affect your lifestyle.
Be sure to ask about clinical trials, too, to see what you’re eligible for and whether these investigational treatments might give you more options.
“There’s this misconception that if you’re enrolling in a clinical trial, you’re a guinea pig testing something that may or may not work,” says Hanna. “That couldn’t be further from the truth. Our clinical trials are essentially taking the best cancer care available and adding something to it that has already been proven safe and effective. Without clinical trials, we wouldn’t be where we are today.”
Step 3: Seek multidisciplinary care
When you’re being treated for cancer, the last thing you want to have to worry about is whether your medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and surgical oncologist are all on the same page. That’s why it’s important to seek treatment at a cancer center like MD Anderson, where specialists from multiple disciplines work together to manage your care.
“Having a highly coordinated, multidisciplinary team is essential,” says Hanna. “Your chances of survival and quality of life are higher when you get the right treatment up front from specialists.”
Step 4: Define your deal-breakers
Cancer treatment and its side effects can have a big impact on your life. That’s why it’s important to identify any non-negotiables. Your doctors can take those into account when making treatment recommendations.
In the case of vocal cord cancer, for instance, a truck driver and an opera singer might have very different goals.
“The opera singer may not be able to tolerate the slightest change in pitch,” says Hanna. “So, it matters less how long the treatment takes, as long as their voice stays the same. The truck driver, meanwhile, may want the fastest treatment possible, so they can get back on the road without much delay.”
Step 5: Share your goals with your doctor
If you have specific goals when it comes to your cancer and treatment, share those with your doctor.
“I want to know patients’ future plans, hopes and dreams,” says Hanna. “What are they trying to accomplish with their treatment?”
Often, he says, patients will mention specific events they’d like to live long enough to witness, such as a child’s graduation or marriage or the birth of a first grandchild.
“When people tell me that, then we have a mutual goal to work toward,” Hanna says. “Treating the cancer is only a part of the equation. What’s meaningful and valuable to each patient is also important.”
Step 6: Set up your support system
Once you’ve worked with your care team to choose the treatment option that’s right for you, set up your support system.
This could be as simple as scheduling regular phone dates with friends to ease your anxiety and get encouragement. Or, it might involve asking for help with housework and childcare during treatment, or recruiting someone to share updates with loved ones.
You can also find support through MD Anderson. Patients and caregivers can participate in virtual support groups, Lunch & Learns and other programs. And myCancerConnection, MD Anderson’s one-on-one support community, offers the chance to connect with other patients and caregivers. You can also ask your MD Anderson care team to connect you with a social work counselor to help you navigate your diagnosis.
Whatever help you might need, remember: you don’t have to face your cancer diagnosis alone.
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