It’s common for patients to feel overwhelmed after receiving a cancer diagnosis. You are given a tremendous amount of information and it’s likely you will have many questions about what it all means.
“Some of the most common questions patients ask include, ‘Is this cancer serious? Am I going to be OK? Am I going to survive this?'” says gynecologic oncologist Dr. Kathleen Yang. “All of their concerns are valid, and we try to address them as clearly and as thoroughly as we can.”
Dr. Yang says a patient can better grasp what’s happening and what may lie ahead if they understand a few key words.
The term “grade” refers to the nature of the cancer. It describes a tumor based on how abnormal the cancer cells and tissue look under a microscope and how quickly the cancer cells are likely to grow and spread. Essentially, it helps determines whether oncologists view the patient’s disease as a good cancer or a bad cancer.
“When we say good cancer, we’re referring to cancers that grow very slowly, that are very indolent and behave, versus bad cancer, which usually refers to cancer that is aggressive and unpredictable,” says Dr. Yang.
Staging refers to the extent of the cancer, including where it’s located, whether or where it has spread, and if it is affecting other organs in the body. Doctors need to know the amount of cancer and where it’s located to be able to choose the best treatment options, which may include surgery, chemotherapy or radiation—or a combination of treatments. Doctors also use a cancer’s stage to help predict the course it will likely take.
In general, cancer has four stages. For most cancers, the stage is a Roman numeral from I to IV. Stage I cancers are least advanced and often have a good prognosis. Stage IV (4) is the highest and means the cancer is more advanced than in the lower stages. Sometimes stages are subdivided as well, using letters such as A and B. Learn more about staging here.
What treatment a patient chooses will help determine their prognosis, which refers to the likely outcome or course of their cancer and their chances for recovery or recurrence. It can be hard to understand what prognosis means and also hard to talk about, even for doctors.
“Prognosis is an educated guess based on statistical information,” says Dr. Yang. “It does not predict what will happen, so I always try to explain that upfront to the patient.”
You can ask your doctor about survival statistics or you may find statistics confusing and frightening, or too impersonal to be of value to you. It is up to you to decide how much information you want. If you decide you want to know more, the oncologist who knows the most about your situation is in the best position to discuss your prognosis and explain what the statistics may mean.
Researching your diagnosis online
Dr. Yang encourages patients to learn as much as they can about their condition and to ask lots of questions, so that you feel empowered to make the treatment decisions that are right for you.
It’s common for patients to research their cancer diagnosis online, but Dr. Yang recommends only using reputable websites like National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, MedlinePlus and American Cancer Society, and be sure to discuss online information with your oncologist.