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9 Questions to Ask Your Doctor About Lung Cancer Treatment
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After you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer, you’ll need to work with your healthcare team to develop a treatment plan. One way to move past the fear and feel empowered is to gain knowledge about the different types of lung cancer treatments and which option may be the best choice for you. To begin, ask these nine key questions to your care team — they’ll help ensure that you’re well informed and better able to set realistic expectations.
How does my type of lung cancer affect my treatment options?
“Lung cancers are divided into small-cell and non-small cell types, and the treatment is different for each of these,” says Heather Mannuel, MD, an assistant professor of medicine at the University of Maryland School of Medicine and a medical oncologist at the University of Maryland Medical Center Greenebaum Comprehensive Cancer Center in Baltimore.
Small-cell lung cancer is almost always treated with chemotherapy and sometimes with radiation, says Ziv Gamliel, MD, chief of thoracic surgery at The Angelos Center for Lung Diseases at MedStar Franklin Square Medical Center and MedStar Harbor Hospital in Baltimore. Non-small-cell lung cancer can be treated with surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, targeted therapies, and immunotherapies, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS). Each treatment can have risks as well as advantages. Ask your doctor to discuss them openly with you so that you can decide on the best path.
What are the goals of treatment?
The right treatment for you also depends on the stage of the cancer (how early it was caught and whether it has spread) as well as your overall health, Dr. Gamliel says. These factors help determine whether the goal of your lung cancer treatment is a cure or palliative care, meaning you’ll feel better but not be cured, Gamliel explains. Your general health matters because not everyone is physically strong enough to tolerate surgery or certain other options, he adds.
Who will lead my overall treatment?
You may need to see a number of specialists in addition to your medical oncologist, according to the ACS. This may include healthcare professionals such as:
- Thoracic surgeon
- Radiation oncologist
- Respiration therapist
- Oncology nurse
- Palliative care specialist
Typically, your medical oncologist or thoracic surgeon is the leader of your team, Gamliel says. Ask your team leader to explain the role of each medical professional involved in your care, how they will coordinate their efforts, and how they will each communicate with you.
Should I get a second opinion?
Second opinions can help put any doubts you have to bed, Gamliel says. However, he suggests not seeking a second opinion until all the information, such as test results and imaging studies, is available for your first team to make its recommendation. This way, you don’t delay getting the treatment you ultimately choose. Also, he adds, “if you have confidence in the specialist you’re seeing and the center where you’re seeking treatment, you should not feel compelled to seek a second opinion.”
Can I add complementary therapies to my treatment?
“Before you start any type of complementary therapy, always talk to your oncologist to make sure it’s safe,” Dr. Mannuel says. Many patients turn to therapies such as acupuncture and massage to be more relaxed and comfortable during their treatment. “Some vitamins and herbal supplements are safe to combine with chemotherapy,” he adds, “but some may cause dangerous side effects.” Never take supplements without first checking with your doctor to ensure they won’t interfere with treatment.
Are there any clinical trials appropriate for me?
Clinical trials may provide an opportunity for you to be treated with drugs or other therapies that are not yet on the market, but in a best-case scenario, could become standard cancer treatment in the future, Mannuel says. “Most large cancer centers participate in clinical trials or have an association with other hospitals and centers that run trials.” In addition to asking your doctor about clinical trials, you can access ClinicalTrials.gov, a registry of available clinical trials across the United States run by the National Institutes of Health.
How will treatment affect my day-to-day life?
Although many potential side effects of lung cancer treatment can be controlled, some therapies require that you be away from work for several weeks at a time. Others may leave you fatigued and unable to maintain a normal work or childcare schedule, Mannuel says. Ask what you might expect from treatment options and whether you can get a referral to a social worker or case manager who can help you find solutions to such issues.
What can I do to ensure my treatment is successful?
Be an active participant in your treatment and ask for specifics on what to do to increase the chances of your desired outcome, Gamliel says. Sticking to your treatment schedule is critical; so are lifestyle choices such as diet and exercise. Know what’s expected of you, Gamliel says.
What comes after my cancer treatment?
Find out what follow-up will be required and what long-term effects might result from medication, surgery, radiation, or other treatment options, Gamliel says. If the treatment your doctors suggest doesn’t work as well as you had hoped, they might recommend different or additional treatments. Ask how to prepare for this possibility.
The goal of asking these questions, Gamliel says, is to feel as though you have all the information you need to make the best treatment decision best for you.
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