The First Steps

The First Steps

If you have just received a cancer diagnosis, you might be feeling pressure to quickly make decisions about your care. You may think that it is urgent to choose and begin a course of treatment.

In certain situations, it can be important to begin treatment quickly. In many cases, though, you do not need to make any decisions within the first several days or even weeks after a diagnosis.

You will be better equipped to make informed choices if you take time to learn about your illness, your treatment options, and the medical experts who are best qualified to treat your particular type of cancer. This section outlines the first steps toward choosing the right care.

Step 1: Get an accurate diagnosis

Getting the best, most-effective cancer treatment is possible only if you start out with an accurate diagnosis. Most patients are diagnosed with cancer by a family doctor or primary care physician, not an oncologist (a specialist who is trained in cancer medicine). A doctor may know you and your family well, but may not be able to provide the most complete diagnosis or be familiar with the newest treatment approaches. In addition, some cancers are quite difficult to diagnose correctly. Before you start any type of treatment, you should get a second opinion from a doctor who is a specialist in the type of cancer you have.

Because members of our staff work as multidisciplinary teams — including medical oncologists, surgical oncologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, radiologists, and other specialists — we will consider every feasible approach to treating your cancer. In some cases, our second opinion may confirm the treatment recommendation you have already received. In other cases, our team of experts may be able to suggest additional options that could lead to more-effective treatment and a better quality of life.

Most health insurance policies cover the cost of a second opinion and do not require a referral. Check with your plan to be sure. If you are unable to afford the cost to travel to Memorial Sloan Kettering for a second opinion, there are several organizations that provide financial assistance. Visit for more information.

Step 2: Preparing for your visit at Memorial Sloan Kettering

Before you meet with doctors and discuss treatment options, you may find it useful to understand the typical treatment for your type and stage of cancer. Memorial Sloan Kettering’s website contains extensive information about our approach to diagnosis and treatment for many common and rare types of cancer. Visit Cancer & Treatment for a list of cancer types, and click to read an overview of your disease.

Our Locations
Learn more about Memorial Sloan Kettering's patient care and research locations in Manhattan, Long Island, Westchester County, and New Jersey.
Learn more

In addition to the standard of care for your disease, Memorial Sloan Kettering offers eligible patients access to new treatments through our clinical trials. Clinical trials are research studies that test new treatments, diagnostic approaches, or strategies for maintaining quality of life. In some cases, you may be able to receive a new drug or other treatment approach before it becomes widely available at other hospitals. Learn more about clinical trials.

Before making treatment decisions, you may want to ask your doctor at Memorial Sloan Kettering some of the following questions:

  • What type of cancer do I have?
  • How aggressive does the cancer appear to be, and how far has it spread?
  • Are other tests needed before I decide on a treatment approach?
  • Which type of treatment do you recommend and why?
  • What is the goal of the treatment?
  • What are the expected benefits of this treatment?
  • What are the risks and possible side effects of this treatment?
  • Where will I receive this treatment?
  • How long will I receive this treatment?
  • Will I need to change my regular activities? If so, for how long?
  • What other treatment options might be available?
  • Would a clinical trial be appropriate for me?

It’s important that you feel comfortable with your treatment choices and fully understand their risks and benefits before you proceed.

Step 3: Check your insurance

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center and our physicians accept most major insurance plans. Medicare and New York State Medicaid also provide benefits for care here.

If you have questions about insurance, Memorial Sloan Kettering has financial counselors on staff who can work with you, your physician, and your insurance company. Our financial counselors can help verify your coverage, answer billing questions, and address your concerns.

If you have questions about insurance, please contact our Insurance Information Line at 646-497-9176. Representatives are available from 9:00 am to 5:00 pm Eastern time, Monday through Friday. You can also find insurance and billing information on our website.

Step 4: Become familiar with your Memorial Sloan Kettering team

As you begin treatment at Memorial Sloan Kettering, you will meet a number of doctors, nurses, and other healthcare professionals who will work together as a team to review your medical tests, provide care, and evaluate the progress of your treatment. Your cancer care team gives you the benefit of the skills and experience of a group of experts who work in different disciplines, but all specialize in diagnosing and treating your particular type of cancer. Our team approach ensures that you receive the best possible treatment for your specific needs.

Nurses play an important role in caring for patients at Memorial Sloan Kettering, and are often the members of the treatment team with whom you will have the most contact. Nurses bring extraordinary compassion, knowledge, and expertise to your care, and will help you through every step of your experience at Memorial Sloan Kettering.

Step 5: Communication is key

Good communication with your doctors, nurses, and support staff is an important part of getting the best care. Throughout your treatment, make sure that your doctors are aware of your concerns, preferences, and symptoms.

Helpful Hint

If possible, bring a family member or friend to your first appointments — either to participate in the discussion, take notes, or just listen and provide support.

To get the most out of your appointments, you might find it helpful to prepare a list of questions beforehand. Take notes while you meet with your doctor so you can refer to them later. We encourage you to bring a family member or friend with you to these appointments if possible — either to participate in the discussion, take notes, or just listen and provide support.

If you leave an appointment with unanswered questions, you can always contact your doctor or nurse at another time. Before leaving an appointment, ask about the best way to stay in touch.

Memorial Sloan Kettering offers a secure website called MYMSKCC that allows you to access personal information about your care. By enrolling in MYMSKCC, you can communicate with your healthcare team using secure electronic messages, keep track of appointments, access your lab results, make changes to contact and insurance information, and manage bills — all through your computer.

Step 6: We’re here to help, every step of the way

People cope in different ways when they find out they have cancer. Family members and friends can provide comfort and support, and can help organize daily activities and meals. Don’t be afraid to ask for their help, for both practical and emotional challenges you might be facing.

We also recommend taking advantage of the wide range of support services that Memorial Sloan Kettering offers to help you cope with the possible side effects of cancer treatment. Our staff includes psychologists, psychiatrists, and social workers who can help you manage any practical issues you and your loved ones might experience. Our Integrative Medicine Service also has specialists in complementary treatments such as yoga, mind/body therapies, and acupuncture. These and other support services can be very helpful for you in maintaining your quality of life over the course of your treatment.

You may also find it comforting to ask questions or share your experiences with other patients, either in person or online. Memorial Sloan Kettering organizes support groups, led by healthcare professionals, where you can discuss your concerns and talk with others whose diagnoses and treatments are similar to yours. You can find out about upcoming support group meetings by visiting our calendar.

If you prefer to have a one-on-one conversation with another patient, Memorial Sloan Kettering’s Patient-to-Patient Support Program can connect you with a former patient. Often, we can arrange for you to speak with someone who has gone through a situation similar to yours, and can share their personal experiences of illness, treatment, and recovery. To arrange to speak with a volunteer, call the Patient-to-Patient Support Program at 212-639-5007 or email