Healthcare staff

Doctors and nurses are a good source of information about your cancer and its treatment. It’s important to try to get the most from your conversations.

Describing symptoms may be difficult, but telling staff how you feel will help them give you the right support. Be open, honest and accurate. Try to use your own words and ask your doctor to explain unfamiliar medical terms.

Knowing what to ask during your appointment can be hard, especially if you feel emotional. Writing questions down before you meet may be useful. Taking a friend or relative along can also help – they may remember any information or questions that you forget.

Your doctor may not always be able to give you definite answers. But asking how your progress will be measured can help you cope better with any uncertainty.

At the end of your appointment, check you understand by summarising your discussion. And don’t be afraid to ask for simpler explanations. You can make a follow-up appointment to ask further questions if you need to.

Talking to healthcare staff

Most conversations between you and your doctors or nurses will probably go smoothly. However, it’s common for people to sometimes feel they’re not getting the information or support they need. Here are some tips to help you:

  • Ask doctors or nurses to use simple language and explain medical terms. Sometimes your doctors and nurses may forget you’re not as familiar with medical terms as they are. If they use words you don’t understand, ask them to explain them.
  • Use your own language. Although your doctors or nurses may use medical terms, you don’t have to. It’s okay to use your own words to describe the problem. In fact, using terms that you only partly understand may cause problems as the health professionals may think you know more than you do.
  • Say if you’re embarrassed. We all find certain kinds of medical symptoms and problems embarrassing and they’re often the kind of personal matter we don’t want to talk about with someone else. So when you start talking about something that’s embarrassing, you can just say something like, ‘I’m sorry ... this is embarrassing to talk about, but …’.


Describing your cancer symptoms

You’ll often have to describe your symptoms, for example pain, feeling sick, breathlessness or some other medical problem. It’s also important to talk about your feelings and any symptoms of depression or anxiety you have. This may be difficult but it’s important to let people know how you feel.

Try to be as factual and open as you can when describing your problem. There may be a temptation to play down the symptoms to appear strong or brave. But it’s best to try to describe the problems in an honest, accurate way. This may not be easy but it will give your doctor a better understanding of your situation so they can help you in the best way.


Asking for information about cancer and its treatment

Your feelings and fears may make it difficult for you to ask your medical team the right questions and to remember their answers. It can be useful to:

  • Try to think of the most important questions before you meet with your doctor.
  • Write down the important points on a piece of paper that you can take with you. Every healthcare professional knows how difficult it is to understand and remember information, particularly when it’s serious and when it’s about you. Nobody will mind you writing things down or making a list of questions you want to ask. Some people are happy for you to record the discussion, so that you can listen to it later. You can also ask your medical team for a copy of any letters summarising the details of your discussion with them.
  • Take a friend or relative with you to appointments. They can help you remember things that the doctor says, and questions you want to ask but may forget.
  • Make sure you understand. Once your doctor or nurse has answered your questions, it’s a good idea to summarise their answers and say something like, ‘So you’re saying that …’ or, ‘If I’ve got that right, you mean that ...’. This makes it clear what you’ve understood, and can encourage your doctor or nurse to explain things more clearly if necessary.
  • Ask for simpler explanations. If you don’t understand what you’re told, it’s fine to ask the person to explain again more simply.
  • Remember, you’ll have other chances to ask questions. You can always make another appointment to ask your questions if you don’t cover everything in the first discussion, or if you’re given surprising news that changes the questions you wanted to ask. You may also be given a phone number for a nurse specialist you can phone if you’ve forgotten to ask a question or if you don’t understand something.

Our sections on getting the best from your cancers services and ask about your cancer treatment may help you to think of questions you’d like to ask your doctors or nurses.


Dealing with uncertainty about cancer

Definite answers aren’t always possible. You may have to accept that uncertainties are common, especially with questions about the future. When the conversation is about things that threaten your health or your view of the future, you may think that your doctor or nurse knows what’s going to happen but won’t tell you. Usually, that isn’t the case.

There is usually a lot of uncertainty with cancer treatment and your doctors and nurses won’t always be able to tell you exactly what will happen to you. Even if statistics show that a treatment has often been successful in the past, there is no way of anyone knowing for sure how well it will work for you. It may help you to cope better if you can understand how your progress will be measured. For example, you can say, ‘So you’ll decide from the x-rays if the treatment is working?’

If you’re unhappy with the care you receive from your healthcare team, try to talk about your worries with them as sensitively as you can. If you can say what you’re unhappy with and how it affects you, they can hopefully change the situation so that it gets better.


Back to Who should I talk to?

Groups and organisations

Groups, organisations and healthcare professionals can help you talk about cancer.

Friends and family

There are ways to tell your family and friends about your cancer.

Your partner

Discussing concerns with your partner can help you feel supported. Allow yourselves time and privacy.

Benefits of talking

Talking about your cancer can help you make decisions and feel less anxious.