Questions To Ask an Oncologist During Your First Visit After a Cancer Diagnosis

MSK head and neck surgeon Marc Cohen and a patient

MSK head and neck surgeon Marc Cohen (left) recommends asking your oncologist if you should have additional testing. In some cases, additional testing can help clarify a diagnosis or even guide treatment.

A cancer diagnosis is life-changing. You might be thinking, “I have cancer, now what?” The first step is to make an appointment with an oncologist — a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. It is easy to call or email Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK). The knowledgeable Care Advisors in our Patient Access Service (PAS) can set up your first visit. They will work with you to identify and make an appointment with the best oncologist for you. If you have been diagnosed with cancer — or have test results indicating that you might have cancer — it is important to see an oncologist as soon as possible. Depending on your situation, some people can even be seen at MSK the next day.

Because MSK diagnoses and treats more than 400 different types of cancers, we will have the right expert for you.

As PAS Medical Director, MSK surgeon Marc Cohen, MD, MPH, has guided many people and their families through their next steps after a cancer diagnosis. He says it’s a good idea to bring a list of questions to your first appointment. He also recommends bringing a loved one or friend. They can take notes and make sure you ask all your questions and understand everything you’re being told. They can also lend support during an experience that may seem overwhelming.

Although each person’s experience with cancer is unique, Dr. Cohen suggests these questions to help you get started.

What type of cancer do I have, and what stage is it?

Dr. Cohen says it’s important that your doctor clearly explain the kind of cancer you have and how advanced it is. These factors help determine your treatment plan and may influence the likely outcome.

At your first appointment, your doctor will ask about your medical history. It’s very easy to forget when things happened, so it’s helpful to write down the timeline of events to bring with you:

  • What symptoms made you go to your doctor in the first place?
  • What tests did your doctor order?
  • Were you referred to additional specialists?
  • Had you previously been treated for cancer?

Should I get a second opinion from an MSK pathologist? What about more tests?

Pathologists are doctors who specialize in diagnosing disease. Getting the right diagnosis from a pathologist is crucial. In some cases, a second opinion by an MSK pathologist may result in changes to the diagnosis.

The MSK Department of Pathology and Laboratory Medicine has 15 multidisciplinary teams dedicated to diagnosing specific cancers. All day and every day, their expert eyes are looking for cancer.

In many types of cancer, additional testing can help clarify the diagnosis or even guide the choice of treatments. Your doctor may recommend genetic testing or sequencing through MSK-IMPACT®. Using tumor or blood samples, it looks for more than 500 cancer-causing genes and may help your provider identify an appropriate treatment.

What experience do you have in treating my type of cancer?

MSK is one of the world’s most respected comprehensive centers devoted exclusively to cancer; our people are leading experts in their fields. Dr. Cohen suggests asking your doctor:

  • How many years have you treated people with this type of cancer?
  • How many people do you treat each year?
  • How often do you see cases like mine?

When should I start cancer treatment, and what are my options?

Dr. Cohen recommends asking: “What is the standard treatment for my cancer?” From there, other important questions include:

  • When should I begin treatment?
  • What are the benefits of the recommended treatment?
  • What are its potential risks and side effects?
  • How will treatment affect my daily routine? Can I continue to work through treatment?
  • Will treatment impact my fertility? If I am planning on having children, what do I need to know about fertility preservation?
  • What should I do if I develop new symptoms after I begin treatment?
  • What support resources are available to help me cope with my diagnosis?
  • Whom should I call if I have additional questions after I leave the office?

Should I consider joining a clinical trial?

A clinical trial tests new treatments to see how well they work. MSK has one of the largest clinical trials programs for cancer in the U.S. That means our patients may have access to new therapies before they’re available in other hospitals. You and your care team can discuss any clinical trials that might be right for you.

Rectal Cancer Disappears After Experimental Use of Immunotherapy
Rectal cancer patients saw their tumors disappear in a clinical trial involving immunotherapy at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center—without surgery, radiation, or chemotherapy.

Will we talk about my prognosis (outcome) during my first appointment?

At your first appointment, you and your oncologist can discuss your projected outcome. But Dr. Cohen says it’s entirely up to you. Conversations about prognosis are complicated because each person is unique and responds differently to treatment. The statistics about the prognosis for your kind of cancer may not apply to you. Dr. Cohen says it’s more helpful to keep in mind that at MSK, we have many options at our disposal, and we’re going to do whatever we can to help you.

Where can I get more information about making and preparing for an appointment with a doctor at MSK?

Here are some helpful links: