Couple discussing cancer treatment options with doctor

11 Steps for Choosing Your Cancer Treatment

Couple discussing cancer treatment options with doctor

After your cancer diagnosis, your primary care physician will begin discussing your cancer treatment plan with you and your family.  At SERO, we specialize in radiation therapy, a localized, highly effective treatment for many types of cancer. However, your doctor may suggest other treatment options in addition to or outside of radiation. There will likely be many treatment options available, and making a decision may feel overwhelming. Understanding what that decision-making process will look like is a good place to start. 

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Who is Involved in Making a Treatment Decision?

As you navigate this process, you will always have a dedicated team of healthcare professionals on your side. Your team may include oncologists, rehabilitation and palliative care specialists, a surgeon, pathologist, pharmacist, nurse, dietitian, case manager, social worker, and others. These specialists will consider your case and propose the treatments they think will be most effective. 

Alongside you and your family, your cancer care team will help you make the tough decisions regarding treatment. You should consider different factors, including your treatment goal, potential side effects, and costs. 

In most cases, patients spend a few weeks deciding on their treatment plan. This offers you enough time to discuss your options with friends, family, and doctors before deciding how to confidently move forward with a treatment plan. 

Step 1: Take Your Time Choosing a Treatment 

Deciding which treatment plan is right for you is a choice you should consider carefully. When cancer patients rush into treatment, they often make decisions without understanding all of their options. This may lead to regret or even a less successful treatment plan. Instead, weigh your options by asking questions, doing research, or even getting a second opinion. 

It’s also important for you to remember that the decision you make isn’t final. You can always change your mind and choose a different treatment plan in the future. 

As you begin to consider your options for cancer care, the following may serve as a step-by-step guide to develop a full picture of your treatment plan. 

Step 2: Consider who will make treatment decisions 

Your first decision is whether you want to be a part of the decision-making process at all. Making decisions about your treatment plan may feel overwhelming. In fact, you may not want to participate in any discussion of your cancer, and you don’t have to. 

You may want to ask a family member or friend to be the point-person for understanding your cancer and options. Many cancer patients prefer to leave all of their treatment decisions in the hands of their doctor. Perhaps you’d like to make decisions in coordination with your doctor. It’s up to you.

Step 3: Understand your diagnosis

If you do decide to be involved in your cancer treatment, you should begin by developing an understanding of your diagnosis. Your health care team are experts. They are almost certainly open to answering every question you may have about your disease. 

Use caution when researching your cancer online. Not all sites have been vetted by doctors. Websites may contain information that is inaccurate, misleading, scary, or simply not applicable to your case. If you would like to continue your research at home, ask your care team for recommendations of trustworthy sites. 

Step 4: Decide the goal of your treatment

While we are always hopeful for a cure, it may not be a realistic goal. Your doctor will be honest with you about the stage of your cancer and options for treatment. Your goal, whether that’s to cure, slow, or just live with your cancer, will greatly affect your treatment options. 

Once you have decided on a goal, you may shift your priorities. The kinds of side effects you’re willing to bear, the time commitment you’re willing to dedicate to treatment, and other decisions may change.

Step 5: Understand your treatment options

Your cancer care options are dependent on the cancer’s location, its behavior, and its stage. 

Some treatment options, like radiation therapy and surgery, are local. Local treatments address a specific area of the body, targeting the cancer and surrounding tissues. 

Other treatment options, like chemotherapy and other cancer drugs, are systemic. Systemic treatments are directed at the entire body. 

Depending on the type of cancer and its stage, your doctors may choose local treatments, systemic treatments, or a combination of both. 

Common Cancer Treatments 

  • Radiation therapy: Radiation therapy is a local treatment that uses X-rays to slow or stop the growth of cancer cells. 
  • Surgery: If it is limited to one area, your oncologist may choose to remove most of the cancer tumor via surgery. 
  • Chemotherapy: There are many powerful chemotherapy drugs made of different chemicals which kill cancer cells. Chemotherapy can be delivered via infusions, drugs, or other treatments. 
  • Hormone therapy: Some cancers use hormones to grow. Hormone therapy may block or change those hormones to stop the growth of the cancer.  
  • Targeted therapy: Using small-molecule drugs or monoclonal antibodies, targeted therapies pinpoint the proteins that affect how cancer cells grow. Targeting these proteins can prevent the growth of cancer cells. 
  • Immunotherapy: Immunotherapy boosts the patient’s immune system so that it can fight the cancer. 
  • Active surveillance: During active surveillance, the patient’s doctor will closely monitor the cancer but not offer treatment unless the cancer changes.
  • Palliative care: Palliative care, like counseling, is offered to patients to help with the emotional, social, and financial impacts of cancer, rather than the physical effects. 
  • Clinical trial participation: Clinical trials are the last step in creating and approving a new treatment. Doctors use real patients to test the efficacy and effects of a treatment. 

Keep in mind, you are not limited to one treatment. Your doctor may recommend multiple treatments for your cancer. 

For example, if your cancer is limited to one area, your doctor may choose to remove the majority of the tumor using surgery. The next step of your treatment plan might be to target the remaining cancer cells with radiation therapy. 

If your doctor chooses to combine treatments, ask how these treatments will work together to treat your cancer. 

Step 6: Ask about the side effects of your treatments

While some patients don’t experience any side effects from treatments like radiation therapy, there are symptoms that are common with certain treatments. Some side effects may be short term and easy to navigate. Others may have long-term repercussions. 

Discuss potential side effects of each treatment with your doctor before proceeding with your decision. There may be some side effects, like infertility, that you are unwilling to risk. There may also be side effects that don’t align with your goal. Discussing potential side effects is a necessary step as you and your doctor develop a plan that prioritizes your comfort and goals. 

Step 7: Discuss the pros and cons of each treatment

Each treatment option will offer both risks and benefits. Your doctor will be able to offer insight into these pros and cons, and you can weigh which are worth it and which are not. 

The primary benefit you should discuss, of course, is the effectiveness of the treatment or chance of a cure. In addition to side effects, you and your doctor should also discuss other factors that may change your day-to-day life, like how treatment may impact your independence or quality of life. For example, will your treatment affect your ability to work or care for your family? 

You should also consider other practicalities, such as your insurance options and the financial cost of treatments. If you are close to your family, you may also want to take their preferences into account. 

Step 8: Decide if you would like a second opinion

It might seem uncomfortable to ask for a second opinion, but many doctors actually encourage cancer patients to seek other opinions. Every oncologist has had a different experience, and they may be able to offer other insight or options. The opinion of another doctor may help you confirm your treatment decision. 

Step 9: Consider costs and insurance coverage

Unfortunately, cancer can be expensive, and not all treatments may be covered by your insurance provider. Contact your insurance company to confirm which treatments are covered, as well as which doctors and healthcare systems. If there are treatment options not covered by your insurance, look at your finances to see if paying out of pocket is feasible. 

Step 10: Discuss your options with people you trust

A cancer diagnosis is a big weight to bear. Don’t be afraid to reach out to loved ones for their perspective on your options. It can even be helpful to have someone else in the room as you discuss your treatment plan with your doctor. Someone else might think of new questions to ask or point out factors you hadn’t thought of. 

Another option is to connect with other people with cancer. It can feel both comforting and supportive to discuss your experience with others who truly understand. Your healthcare team can connect you to a local support group or a trusted online community. 

Step 11: Maintain constant communication with your doctor 

Always know that your doctor is there to help. You are encouraged to ask your doctor any question that may arise regarding your disease and cancer care. If there’s something you don’t understand, ask your doctor for clarification. 

When you’re in the exam room discussing your options, it may be difficult to capture your thoughts. We recommend writing down your questions in advance. Bring a friend or relative who can ask any questions you may miss. You can even record your conversation with your doctor, and revisit it when your mind settles. 

If at any point during your treatment you are uncomfortable with your care plan, speak up. Your doctor may be able to change your treatment. 

Questions to Ask About Your Cancer Treatment Options 

Before you begin your cancer care, there are many questions you should ask yourself, like: 

  • How much do I want to know about my cancer and treatment? 
  • Do I want to make decisions regarding my cancer treatment? 
  • Would I prefer my doctor retain control over my cancer treatments? 
  • Who else can help me make decisions about my cancer treatments?
  • What side effects am I willing to/not willing to experience? 
  • Do I feel pressured to choose a particular treatment option? 
  • Given my diagnosis, what is my goal?
  • How will treatments affect my daily life? 
  • Will insurance cover my treatments? 
  • Can I financially afford these treatments? 
  • Should I get a second opinion? 
  • Who can I turn to for support? 

There are also questions you’ll want to ask your doctor and questions you’ll want to ask at each stage of your journey. For a complete list, view our list of Questions to Ask Your Doctor

The Next Step: Creating a Cancer Treatment Plan

Once you’ve decided on a treatment option, the next step is to develop a cancer treatment plan. This is a document that outlines and tracks important information along your cancer journey. It includes details like your cancer type and stage, your treatment plan, the dates of your treatment, test results, and more. The goal of your cancer treatment plan is to keep everyone, from doctors to specialists to family caregivers, on the same page at all times. 

While the road ahead may seem daunting, know that your cancer care team will be with you every step of the way. From choosing a cancer treatment to navigating symptoms, our oncologists and nurses are here to answer questions and offer guidance. Feel free to reach out to us today.