Talking to healthcare staff

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

Before your appointment, it is a good idea to write down any questions you have. Taking a friend or relative with you can also help you remember any information or questions you might forget.

Be honest with healthcare staff about how you are feeling, and about any problems or symptoms you have. This will make it easier for them to give you the help you need. You do not need to use medical terms – it is fine to use your own words. If you don’t understand what you have been told, ask them to explain again.

At the end of your appointment, briefly repeat to the doctor or nurse what they have told you. Then if you have misunderstood anything, they can explain it more clearly.

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Talking with your healthcare team

Most conversations between you and your doctors or nurses will probably go smoothly.

However, sometimes you might find it difficult to ask your medical team the right questions and remember their answers. You could write down what you want to ask them and what they tell you.

It is common for people to sometimes feel they are not getting the information or support they need.


Practical tips for talking with healthcare staff

Think of the most important questions before you meet with your doctor

We have a tool that may help you to think about:

  • things that are going well with your cancer treatment
  • things that could be improved with your cancer treatment
  • anything else you want to mention.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

Write down the important points on a piece of paper that you can take with you

Some people are happy for you to record the conversation, so you can listen to it later.

You can also ask your healthcare team for a copy of any letters that have the details of your discussions.

Take a relative or friend with you to appointments

They can help you remember things that the doctor says, and questions you want to ask but may forget.

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 don’t 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 doctor or 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 don’t want to talk about. 

When you start talking, you can say, ‘This is embarrassing to talk about, but…’.

Make sure you understand

Briefly repeat the doctor’s words back to them by saying the following:

  • ‘You are saying that…’.
  • ‘If I have got that right, you mean that…’.

This makes it clear how much you have understood. It will encourage your doctor or nurse to explain things more clearly.

Remember, you will have other chances to ask questions

You could make another appointment to ask your questions if:

  • you don’t cover everything in the first discussion
  • you are given surprising news that changes the questions you wanted to ask. 

You may also be given a phone number for a specialist nurse. If you have forgotten to ask a question or if you don’t understand something, you can phone them.

We have suggestions of questions you might like to ask your doctors or nurses. 


Getting information

Some people want to know as much as possible about their illness. This can help them explain things to their family and friends, and helps them during talks with their medical team.

Sometimes you may have a choice of treatments. In this situation, it is helpful to ask your doctor to explain all the benefits and disadvantages of each treatment so you can make the right choice for you.

You may find it helpful to read our information about making treatment decisions. You can also discuss your treatment choices with our cancer support specialists by calling 0808 808 00 00.

For some people, having more information helps 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 doctors.

However, you need to have a certain amount of information to be able to give consent to your treatment. It is best if you explain how you feel to your healthcare team so they know how much information to give you.

Talking to your healthcare team about what you think and feel will help them focus on the issues that are important to you. Then you will really benefit from conversations with your medical team.

Reliable sources of information

You may sometimes find it difficult to get all the information you need from the team looking after you.

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. See above for information about talking to healthcare staff.

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.

Many people still believe myths about cancer. For example, they may believe that cancer can never be cured. And some well-meaning people may want to tell you about bad experiences of cancer that are not relevant to your situation. If this happens, let the person know that you feel uncomfortable hearing about other people’s bad experiences. You could say that you would rather get the information you need from healthcare professionals.

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 a helpline, booklets and audio resources. You can search for them on our website.

Being able to talk to my nurse about things was very important. She was so well informed and always gave me the time of day.

Patrick


Problems with your healthcare team

If you are unhappy with the care you get from your healthcare team, try to talk about your worries with them. Say what you are unhappy with and how it affects you. This will help your healthcare team to change the situation.

If your disagreement is about your treatment at the hospital, you can contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS). They can help sort out any problems. You can also write a formal complaint, which the hospital will respond to.


Dealing with uncertainty

It isn’t always possible to get answers. You may have to accept that uncertainties are common during cancer treatment. Even if statistics show that a treatment has been successful in the past, doctors don’t know how well it will work for you. If you understand how your progress will be measured, it may help you cope better. For example, you could ask, ‘Can you see from the x-rays if the treatment is working?’.

Uncertainty can be one of the hardest emotions to deal with. Talking to family, friends and healthcare professionals about how you feel can help. We have tips on asking for support.

Some people find it useful to talk about things with a counsellor. Your local cancer information centre or cancer support group may have a counsellor who you can talk to. Or your doctors and nurses can help you contact one.

Try focusing on things in your life that you can control. It may help you feel less anxious.

My nurse would hold my hand and we’d talk. And that, to me, was everything.

David

Back to If you have cancer

Talking and relationships

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