Whether you’re meeting with an oncologist for the first time or the fifth time, oncology appointments can be stressful. Preappointment jitters are a common topic on MyBCTeam, especially among members meeting a new oncologist for the first time. “First appointments with a new doctor can be intimidating — scary even!!” acknowledged one MyBCTeam member, offering support to a newer member.
Your head may be swirling with questions and concerns to discuss with your doctor, especially if you’ve already had a stressful day. You also may worry that you’ll have a small window of time to ask all your questions as you try to digest everything the doctor has to say. Most Americans get no more than 24 minutes with their oncologist during appointments.
Whether you’re receiving an initial diagnosis or following up to discuss new test results or treatment options, going in prepared can help you feel calmer and more confident at your next appointment. Being ready with these seven things can help ensure you leave your appointment feeling empowered and knowledgeable about what comes next in your breast cancer journey.
Health experts and MyBCTeam members agree that bringing a trusted loved one to your appointment can be invaluable. If you don’t have anyone available the day of your appointment, consider asking your provider if a nurse navigator is available to join you. Nurse navigators are registered nurses who can help guide people through the health care system. Oncology nurse navigators are trained specifically to work with people with different types of cancer.
“My first meeting with my oncologist was a bit overwhelming. I was so glad I had someone with me to take notes and for support. There’s so much info to absorb all at once,” shared one MyBCTeam member.
Help your friend or loved one understand in advance how they can best support you during your appointment. “Be sure to let that person know why exactly they are going with you and what their role is,” advises Dr. Lidia Schapira, editor-in-chief of Cancer.Net.
Perhaps you’d like them to take detailed notes for you, allowing you to focus on what your doctor’s saying and not on whether you’re accurately jotting down important information or dates.
“There is so much info to absorb that it’s hard to remember it,” said a MyBCTeam member who also recommended bringing a loved one to appointments.
Your appointment companion could also keep their ears open and ask questions that may not occur to you in a moment when you’re feeling distracted, tired, or overwhelmed. In a similar vein, they can raise points or topics you meant to cover but forgot.
Additionally, depending on your relationship, the person accompanying you may be able to provide the doctor with valuable outside perspectives about your experiences. For example, they may be able to talk about new symptoms you’ve shown but haven’t connected to your diagnosis or medication.
“On more than one occasion, I’ve seen them help by reporting symptoms, such as nausea or insomnia, to a clinician who can then provide a recommendation for treatment,” Dr. Schapira wrote.
Equally important, a friend or loved one can also provide moral and emotional support. Encouraging words, a supportive hug, a gentle squeeze of your hand, or a simple reminder to breathe can be helpful in steadying and grounding you when you’re feeling nervous or upset.
Finally, from a logistical standpoint, you may enjoy some peace of mind if someone else is driving you to your appointment, carrying your essentials, and navigating the halls of an unfamiliar cancer center or hospital.
Before setting foot in your oncologist’s office, you may have dozens of questions about your cancer diagnosis, tests, symptoms, or treatment. Preparing a list in advance helps ensure you’ll get the answers you need.
Consider prioritizing your questions in case time runs short — and be sure to ask the best way to follow up with further questions, whether by phone, by email, or through the provider’s website.
“Take some time before the appointment to center yourself and make a list of the questions you have for the doctor,” a MyBCTeam member recommended. “Write them out in an order that makes sense to you, and leave space on the page for writing down the answers. And if anything in the answer doesn’t make sense, ask for more explanation until it’s clear.”
Questions to consider adding to your list include:
Bring along extra paper and writing implements, too — just in case. Alternatively, ask the doctor whether you can make an audio recording of the appointment with your smartphone or tablet. You can review it later to make sure you fully understand everything that was said.
Your oncologist will need your most up-to-date medical information to provide the best possible advice, diagnosis, prognosis, or treatment options. Make sure to bring any such records, reports, or other materials they may request or require. In the U.S., you’re legally entitled (with some exceptions) to review and receive copies of your medical and billing records from a health care provider.
Medical records to bring with you include:
Some MyBCTeam members recommend assembling all your paperwork in a binder for convenience. “Yes, the binder is super helpful,” wrote one member. “I have medical info in one, and bills/insurance statements in another — so much paperwork!!”
Be sure to bring your health insurance card and information to your appointment — along with your ID — to speed up the check-in process and avoid any billing surprises.
Speaking of insurance: If it’s your first visit to a particular oncologist or you know you’ll be discussing a new treatment option, consider reviewing your insurance coverage in advance so you’ll know how much will be covered and how much you may have to pay out of pocket.
The oncologist’s office may also ask to see your referral paperwork from your primary care provider. Be sure to bring a copy of that as well.
Finally, you may be required to fill out patient forms prior to seeing your oncologist. Doing so in advance can save you time and stress and ensure you don’t forget something important, like an emergency contact’s phone number. Many doctors’ offices will provide the paperwork in advance, either on a website for downloading or by email upon request.
Your oncologist will want to know which prescription and over-the-counter medications, herbal remedies, and nutritional supplements you’re currently taking and at what doses. Some of those products could have undesirable interactions with cancer medications. Your doctor needs to know what you’re using in order to keep you safe and make the best recommendations.
Instead of just listing your medications and supplements, bring the physical package of each. That way, your doctor can see exactly what dosages you’ve been prescribed.
Do let them know if you haven’t been sticking to prescribed doses — and why. If you’re having difficulty following a treatment regimen — whether due to side effects or because it’s not meeting your expectations or needs — your doctor should work with you to make it more bearable or explore other options.
In an ideal world, doctor appointments would start at their scheduled time. As many MyBCTeam members know, however, you may arrive early, only to find yourself spending a long time in the waiting room. “I just arrived home from an appointment that was scheduled for 11:20 a.m. ... Two hours later, finally heard my name called. I will have to remember this next time we have an appointment scheduled the day after a holiday,” one member shared.
While waiting, you can stave off hunger, thirst, discomfort, boredom, or anxiety by packing a bag with some food, entertainment, and comfort items. “I made sure my iPad and headphones were charged, packed some snacks. I’d also recommend taking a book to read and making sure you have something comfortable to wear,” a MyBCTeam member shared.
Consider bringing a drink and snacks to help maintain your strength, energy, comfort, and concentration levels. Also, you never know what the temperature will be in the doctor’s office, so bring an extra layer or two — especially if you tend to get cold.
You may also want to bring items to distract or entertain yourself as you wait. These may include:
It’s only natural to be scared, angry, or anxious in the face of a cancer diagnosis or when preparing for a new treatment, whether it’s chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or surgery. Working through those feelings can help you feel more grounded, calm, and positive when it comes time to meet with your doctor.
First, talking about your feelings openly and honestly can be invaluable. Per the American Cancer Society, “Working through their feelings can help a person with cancer feel more optimistic. And this optimism can lead to a better quality of life.”
Some people choose to confide in a friend, spouse, or loved one. Some join a support group, such as MyBCTeam, through which they can learn from the experiences of others who know what it’s like to live with breast cancer. You could also seek professional help from a mental health expert, such as a therapist or social worker.
You may also take comfort learning about how research surrounding cancer has grown in recent years. Many highly effective treatments and lifestyle changes are available to help you live your best possible life. Taking some time to read more about your diagnosis and treatment options may help reduce some of your worries. Knowledge is empowering.
It may also be helpful to practice some relaxation techniques before an appointment to foster calm and positivity. These include:
MyBCTeam is the social network for people with breast cancer and their loved ones. On MyBCTeam, more than 59,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
What are your best tips to prepare for an oncology appointment? Share in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.