Talking to 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 with them.

Before your meeting it’s a good idea to write down any questions you have. Taking a friend or relative along can also help you to 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 don’t need to use medical terms, it’s fine to use your own words. If you don’t understand what you’ve been told ask them to explain again.

At the end of a meeting summarise to the doctor or nurse your understanding of what you’ve been told. Then if you’ve misunderstood anything the doctor or nurse will know to explain it more clearly.

Tips for talking to healthcare staff

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

However, your feelings and fears may make it difficult for you to ask your medical team the right questions and to remember their answers.

Conversations with healthcare staff

It’s common for people to sometimes feel they’re not getting the information or support they need.

Here are some practical tips for when you are talking to healthcare staff.

  • Think of the most important questions you want answered before you meet with your doctor.
  • You can take notes during the meeting or ask if you can record the discussion, so you can listen to it later. 
  • You can ask for a copy of any letters summarising the details of your discussion.
  • 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.
  • Be honest and factual when describing problems. Don’t play down symptoms and say if you have difficult feelings such as anxiety or depression. 
  • Use your own language. Your doctors or nurses may use medical terms, but you don’t have to. 
  • Ask for simpler explanations. It’s okay to say you don’t understand the terms used and ask for them to explain things in a simpler way.
  • Say if you’re embarrassed. You can say, ‘I’m sorry, this is embarrassing to talk about, but…’.
  • Make sure you understand. Summarise what you have been told. You can say, ‘So you’re saying that…’ or ‘If I’ve got that right, you mean that…’.
  • Remember, you can ask to make another appointment to ask more questions if you don’t cover everything in the first discussion. 
  • Ask if there is a phone number for a nurse specialist you can contact if you’ve forgotten to ask a question or if you don’t understand something.

We have a tool that may help you to think about things that are going well or could be improved with your treatment.

It is taken from the website thinkaboutyourlife.org, which was developed by cancer survivors. The website has examples, stories and support to help you use the tool.

You can download a PDF of the tool.

We also have information about asking about your cancer treatment. It may help you to think of questions you’d 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’s 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 our information about making treatment decisions helpful. You can also discuss your treatment choices with our cancer support specialists. Call them on 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’s 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’ll 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 doctors or nurses looking after you.

Your own healthcare team is in the best position to help you and answer your questions because they have the most information about your particular situation, the cancer and your general health. However, there are many other sources of support and information. It’s 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 that cancer can never be cured. And some well-meaning people may want to tell you about awful experiences of cancer that aren’t relevant to your situation at all. If this happens to you, let the person know that you feel uncomfortable hearing about other people’s bad experiences and you’d rather get the information you need from the healthcare professionals.

You can get reliable information from our cancer support specialists on 0808 808 00 00 or from our website. There are also other useful organisations that often provide a helpline, booklets and audio resources. You can search for them on the Macmillan website.


Problems with your healthcare team

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.

If your disagreement is about your treatment at the hospital, you can contact the Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS), who 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 definite answers. You may have to accept that uncertainties are common. When the conversation is about things that threaten your health or your 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 often a lot of uncertainty with 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. It may help you cope better if you can understand how your progress will be measured. For example, you can ask, ‘So you can see from the x-rays if the treatment is working?’

Uncertainty can be one of the hardest things to deal with. It can make you feel angry, irritable and frightened, which can sometimes cause tension with people around you.

Talking to family, friends and healthcare professionals about how you feel can help. See our information 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.

Focusing on things in your life that you can control may help to reduce your anxiety. We have more information and ideas on how you may take control of your situation.

Tips for talking to your doctor

Find out how to get the most out of your appointments with a GP or doctor.

About our cancer information videos

Tips for talking to your doctor

Find out how to get the most out of your appointments with a GP or doctor.

About our cancer information videos

Back to If you have cancer

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