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Questions to Ask Your Child's Doctor

No parent wants to see his or her child suffer. A diagnosis of cancer in a child is one of the most devastating events in a parent's life. One of the best coping mechanisms is to be informed. Cancer is extremely complex and difficult to understand. It is important to ask as many questions as necessary to be completely clear about the diagnosis and what to expect, and to understand why certain tests are being done. Parents are entitled to a clear explanation about anything related to their child's condition.

To help ensure safe, quality care, the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality recommends that you:

  • Keep asking questions until you understand the answers. A cancer diagnosis is so overwhelming that it is very hard to understand all the information being shared with you. Take a relative or friend to the doctor visits and ask him or her to write down both your questions and the doctor's answers.
  • Keep a list of all medications that are being used, including the doses, length of time used, results, and side effects. Ask the pharmacist about the medication if it looks different than what you expect.
  • Keep a file with results of any tests or procedures. Don't assume test results are fine if you don't hear back from the doctor. Call and ask for results. Also ask what the results mean for your child's care.
  • If surgery is recommended, make certain you know what will happen. Find out: what will be done, how long it will take, what will happen after surgery, and how your child will be expected to feel during recovery.

In addition to the above, here are some important questions you may consider asking your child's doctor:

  • What type of cancer does my child have?
  • What is it called and what does the name mean?
  • What caused the cancer?
  • How do I explain the disease to my child? How much does he/she need to know?
  • What do we do about the disease? What is next?
  • How do we know if a treatment is working? What about other treatments I have read about in magazines and on the Internet?
  • Are there any problems that will occur from the treatment?
  • What if the disease comes back again?
  • What do I do if my child has a problem coping with the disease or the treatment for the disease? Where do I turn for help?
  • What support groups are available?

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) both recommend that the diagnosis, staging, and treatment of childhood cancers occur in one of the over two hundred centers that specialize in childhood cancers. In these centers, children are treated by a doctor who specializes in the care of children with cancer (pediatric oncologist). Equally important, the child's care is developed within a multidisciplinary team, meaning that a variety of specialists work together to develop the best  treatment, or "protocol," for your child. 

NCI-desginated cancer centers can be found at cancercenters.cancer.gov/cancer_centers/. In addition to the NCI, the American Cancer Society provides reliable resource information on childhood cancers. The ACS can be contacted at www.cancer.org/Treatment/ChildrenandCancer/ or by calling 800-227-2345.

A cancer diagnosis is a crisis not only for your immediate family, but also for your family's relatives and friends. While reaching out for help, asking doctors numerous questions, and using outside community resources may be hard. In the long run these strategies will help ensure safe care for your child, and emotional and physical support for you and your family.

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