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Cancer Patients Should Ask Doctors to Use Simple Terms

WEDNESDAY, Sept. 28 (HealthDay News) -- Cancer patients are often faced with many difficult-to-understand treatment choices that can have serious side effects and even mean the difference between life and death.

That's why it's crucial that patients insist doctors use plain language in explaining the options, advised Angela Fagerlin, an associate professor of internal medicine at the University of Michigan Medical School and a researcher at the U-M Comprehensive Cancer Center.

"People are making life and death decisions that may affect their survival and they need to know what they're getting themselves into. Cancer treatments and tests can be serious. Patients need to know what kind of side effects they might experience as a result of the treatment they undergo," Fagerlin said in a university news release.

She and her colleagues outlined a number of tips to help patients get the information they need to make an informed decision. These tips, published in the Sept. 19 online edition of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, include the following:

  • If you don't understand something, ask doctors to explain it again using simpler terms. "Doctors don't know when patients don't understand them. They want patients to stop them and ask questions," Fagerlin said in the news release.
  • Focus on the absolute risk. There is often more than one way of stating the same statistic. A doctor might say, "This drug will cut your risk in half." Another way of stating that same fact is: "The drug will lower your risk from 4 percent to 2 percent." A patient armed with that information knows that their absolute risk is rather small to begin with, and can make a better decision. "It's important that patients and doctors know how to communicate these numbers, and patients need to have the courage to ask their doctor to present it so they can understand," Fagerlin said.
  • Ask about additional risk. You may be told the risk of a certain side effect occurring is 7 percent. But if you didn't take the drug, is there a chance you'd still experience that side effect? Patients should remember to ask what the additional, or incremental, risk of a treatment is so they can make better decisions.
  • Take notes. The amount of information given to cancer patients can be overwhelming. Either write it down, or at the end of a discussion, ask your doctor for a written summary of the risks and benefits. That way you can go home, have time to digest the information and make your decision.
  • Don't pay too much attention to averages. Research that estimates the risk of getting a certain disease is often based on large groups of people, or populations, such as "people over 65 years old." But your individual risk may be lower or higher than the average risk depending on your genes, overall health, other conditions you may have, smoking status, etc. Your personal risk is what matters most, not the average risk.
  • In some cases, there may be many different treatment options, but only a few may be relevant. Patients should ask their doctor to discuss options most pertinent to their individual situation.

More information

The American Cancer Society has more about cancer treatments and side effects.

-- Robert Preidt

SOURCE: University of Michigan Health Sciences, news release, Sept. 20, 2011

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