Questions to Ask After Your Colon Cancer Diagnosis

Ask these useful questions

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When a coworker's father received word that his colon cancer had recurred, one of the first things she said to me was, "What should we ask at his next appointment?" Fighting colon cancer requires planning for and engaging in numerous battles. That's why I've prepared a list of useful diagnosis questions to help ensure you're fully armed.

What Type of Colon Cancer Do I Have?

Chances are you have adenocarcinoma, which accounts for about 90-95% of all colon cancers.

But, there are subtypes of adenocarcinoma (signet ring cell and mucinous) and a variety of non-adenocarcinoma colon cancers as well, such as neuroendocrine tumors, lymphoma, leiomyosarcoma, and melanoma. The type of colon cancer you have can significantly influence your treatment options and prognosis.

What Stage is My Cancer?

Determining the colon cancer stage is an important part of choosing an appropriate treatment. Colon cancer used to be rated using the Duke's system. For example, Duke's A cancer was the equivalent of stage 1 cancer. Sometimes you'll still hear people refer to their tumors that way, which can cause some confusion.

Your doctor will be able to explain in detail which stage your cancer is in and exactly what that means. If you have stage 2 colon cancer, be sure to ask whether it's stage 2a or 2b; if you have stage 3, be sure to ask whether it is stage 3a, 3b or 3c. They all mean different things and can impact your treatment options and prognosis.

What Are My Treatment Options?

Colon surgery is the most common treatment for colon cancer. In ideal situations, where the cancer is found at a very early stage, a doctor can remove the tumor with a colonoscope. Most of the time, however, colon surgery is required. Chemotherapy is sometimes recommended for stage 2 colon cancer, and usually recommended for stage 3 and stage 4 colon cancer in combination with biologic therapies that specifically target cancer cells.

Radiation therapy is also used in colon cancer treatment.

While having a general idea is good, it's helpful to know exactly what your doctor recommends, step by step. Should you have surgery by a certain date? How long can you safely delay surgery while deciding on a course of treatment and researching doctors? What are the pros and cons of different chemotherapy regimens? Your doctor is an invaluable resource who can provide detailed information specific to your case — stuff you can't find on the Internet. Take advantage of her knowledge and get a professional medical opinion regarding your treatment options.

What Is My Prognosis?

This is the million dollar question. Many people want to know, but a lot of doctors are uncomfortable providing an estimate, especially with later-stage cancers. My suggestion? Ask anyway if you want to know. You can use general colon cancer survival statistics, but I think it's best to hear what your doctor thinks about your particular case and how your prognosis may change depending on different treatment options.

The Internet can't do that for you. That sort of assessment requires a medical professional with intimate knowledge of your case.

What Doctors Do You Recommend?

Finding the right doctor is an important part of your care. A healthcare comparison tool, such as UCompare, can help you choose a doctor based on certain objective criteria. The doctor who diagnosed you, however, may be able to offer recommendations based on his personal experience with certain doctors.

It's important to remember that you're making the decision here; you're in charge. You decide which treatment options to pursue and who is a member of your treatment team. Some individuals to consider include the following:

  • A gastroenterologist or oncologist to provide a second opinion
  • An oncologist to help you settle on a course of treatment
  • A colon surgeon to remove the tumor
  • Surgeons who specialize in other organs if cancer has spread to the liver, lungs, brain or less common areas, such as the stomach lining (peritoneum).

If you're considering receiving treatment at a center for integrative medicine or a comprehensive cancer center, your doctor may be able to recommend a treatment facility in your area.

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