Talking to your healthcare team

A team of doctors, nurses and other specialists work together to plan your cancer treatment. We have practical tips for talking with healthcare staff. 

Going to appointments

A team of doctors, nurses and other specialists work together to plan your treatment, but you will usually have one main cancer doctor.

Your main cancer doctor is often a consultant cancer specialist (oncologist) at the hospital, but may be another type of specialist. If you are not sure who your main doctor is, ask your healthcare team.

Before you go to an appointment, it can help to prepare any questions you would like answered. We have a tool that may help you to think about things that are going well with your cancer treatment and things that could be improved.

You may find it helpful to:

  • take notes during these appointments that you can read later
  • record the conversation so you can listen to it later
  • ask your healthcare team for a copy of any letters that have the details of your discussions
  • take someone with you to your hospital appointments, such as a relative or friend. They can make notes, ask questions for you and help you feel supported.

Practical tips for talking with healthcare staff

  • Be honest and factual when describing problems

    Do not say that your symptoms are better than they are. Talk about how you feel, including feelings of anxiety or depression. Even if your healthcare team cannot help you, they should refer you to someone who can help.

  • Use your own language

    Your doctors or nurses may use medical terms, but you do not have to. Using terms that you only partly understand may cause problems. For example, healthcare professionals may think you know more than you do.

  • Ask for simpler explanations

    It is okay to say you don’t understand the terms used. Ask your cancer doctor or specialist nurse to explain things in a simpler way.

  • Say if you are embarrassed

    Medical symptoms and problems can be embarrassing. They are often the kind of personal things we do not want to talk about. When you start talking, you can say, ‘This is embarrassing to talk about, but…’.

  • Make sure you understand by repeating things back to the doctor

    You could say things like ‘You are saying that…’ or ‘If I have got that right, you mean that…’. This makes it clear how much you have understood.

  • Remember, you will have other chances to ask questions

    You could make another appointment if you do not cover everything or get surprising news throughout treatment. You may also get a phone number for a specialist nurse. If you have forgotten to ask a question or do not understand something, you can phone them.

It is important to remember that it might not always be possible to get definite answers from your healthcare team. Uncertainty can be one of the hardest emotions to deal with, but there is support available.

If you need extra help

There is extra help available for particular circumstances:

  • People who do not speak English

    The hospital can arrange an interpreter for you when you meet with your cancer doctor or other members of the healthcare team. You may have to ask in advance for your hospital to arrange this in advance. There are also people called advocates who can talk on your behalf. The Macmillan Support Line has an interpretation service in over 200 languages.

  • Hearing or speech difficulties

    You may want to bring someone with you to speak on your behalf or sign any conversation you have with your cancer doctor. You can also ask your doctors or nurses to write things down for you. Action on Hearing Loss can give you further information and support.

  • Partially sighted

    You can ask for written information to be provided in large print. Some organisations, including Macmillan, can provide information in Braille or as an audio CD. You can also ask your cancer doctor if it is okay to record their conversations with you. You can get further information and support from the Royal National Institute of Blind People (RNIB).

  • Physical or learning disabilities

    People with a physical or learning disability may find it harder to have a conversation with their healthcare team. There are people called advocates who can talk on your behalf. They can help make sure your healthcare team knows about any wishes you have. You can read more about NHS advocates on the nhs.uk website. We have easy read information that uses simple language and pictures.

Getting information

Some people want to know as much as possible about their illness to help them during talks with their medical team or family and friends. It can also help them feel involved in their care and more in control generally.

Other people prefer not to know all the details of their illness and want to leave treatment decisions to their healthcare team.

But you need to have a certain amount of information to be able to give consent to your treatment. You should talk to your healthcare team about what you think and feel, this will help them focus conversations on the issues that are important to you.

We have British Sign Language videos that may help you understand and cope with cancer.

Reliable sources of information

Your own healthcare team is in the best position to help you and answer your questions. They have the most information about your situation, the cancer and your general health.

However, there are many other sources of support and information. It is important to get information from a reliable source, which is up to date and relevant to your situation.

You can get reliable information from our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 or from our website. There are other organisations that often provide online resources and booklets.