Sep 24, 2014

Interview Transcript

Interviewer: You've been diagnosed with cancer. Now what? We'll examine that next on The Scope.

Announcer: Medical news and research from University Utah physicians and specialists you can use for a happier, healthier life. You're listening to The Scope.

Interviewer: You've been diagnosed with cancer, and I'm sure there are a million questions going through your mind at that point and we're going to try to figure out some of the answers to those questions. We're with Dr. John Sweetenham, with Huntsman Cancer Institute.
First of all, what is in your experience the general reaction when somebody gets a cancer diagnosis?

Dr. Sweetenham: I think it's a combination of fear, anxiety, anger, and bewilderment.

Interviewer: Yeah, that's generally what you see.

Dr. Sweetenham: Yes, generally that's what you see; mostly fear. And I would say the second thing that most people experience is this kind of lack of direction and bewilderment about what they need to do next.

Interviewer: Yeah. Well, I hope to cover a few of those things right now, because is it the case when you tell somebody they have cancer that they don't hear a lot of what you say after that?

Dr. Sweetenham: That's exactly right. And when we start thinking about now what, one of the first things that I would say to anyone who has actually been given this diagnosis is that in any other encounter you have with a healthcare professional have somebody with you, because you are absolutely right. I think when many people hear the word cancer, they stop at that point and they hear nothing else that they're told. So a second or a third pair of ears is going to be so important to get you the information you need to make good decisions about what to do next.

Interviewer: Yeah, that's good advice. I would imagine a lot of the now what depends on what kind of cancer it is.

Dr. Sweetenham: Absolutely. Probably the most important thing that you can do very early on in this journey is to get as much information as you possibly can about your cancer. Find out the name of your cancer. Find out where it is in your body. Find out where it started if you can, and if it has spread, find out where it has spread to.
And then ask a few questions about whether your care provider thinks that this is a fast-growing tumor, or a slow-growing tumor. So in other words, as early on in the process as you possibly can, just get as much information as you can, because it's having information in an understandable form for you which is going to be your best and strongest tool in figuring out how to get through this journey.

Interviewer: And not only that, but feeling comfortable, right? You've kind of answered some of the unknown questions. So cancers aren't necessarily a death sentence. I think a lot of people hear cancer and immediately we go, bad.

Dr. Sweetenham: Right, and that's absolutely right. And of course, remember that in our lifetimes one half of all men and one third of all women are going to get a cancer diagnosis. And as you say, it's not for everybody by any means a kind of life sentence. There are at the moment in this country 70 million cancer survivors, and that number is going to steadily increase. So this is not a death sentence by any means.
So once you get past that initial kind of panic and anxiety and fear, just remember that fact. That the outcome for many people with cancer is actually extremely good, and it's improving every week.

Interviewer: What are some other thoughts you have when somebody receives, that I have cancer, now what?

Dr. Sweetenham: One of the most important aspects is going to be in choosing your team. In other words, who do you want to take care of you? And I think immediately when you think about that the tendency is to think that everybody needs to see an oncologist. Well, they may not, and I think right up front, for example if you have a skin cancer many dermatologists treat skin cancer and treat it very, very effectively.
If you have a thyroid cancer, it is likely that a thyroid specialist would treat that, and again, would treat it very effectively. So it's very important, and right up front, not to assume that you necessarily need to see an oncologist, although most people will need to see some kind of oncologist, And just to be clear, an oncologist is a cancer specialist.
There are three types, major kind of groups of oncologists. There is the surgical oncologist, who uses surgery. There are radiation oncologists who treat it with x-rays and other radiation-type treatments. And there are the medical oncologists who predominantly use drug and hormonal therapies to cancer. And you may need to see one, two, or all three of those kinds of specialists, just depending upon what type of cancer you have.

Interviewer: So you generally get that diagnosis, and the next step is to determine who you're going to talk to next, it sounds like?

Dr. Sweetenham: Exactly right. And usually the person who gives you the diagnosis is going to be able to direct you for where to go and maybe set up a referral so that you get to the appropriate oncologist.

Interviewer: And I would imagine a lot of that research that the patient would do at that point would give them more direction as to how long this treatment is going to last, the side effects of the treatment. Is it generally very different for all different types of cancers, or is there kind of a common thread?

Dr. Sweetenham: There really isn't a common thread. It's very different depending on the type of cancer, and it might range from surgery only, no surgery at all, radiation only, chemotherapy only, or even none of the above. There are some cancers where at least when they are initially diagnosed they grow so slowly that we actually recommend no treatment at all to begin with.

Interviewer: That must be kind of shocking when people hear that.

Dr. Sweetenham: It is, and many people take quite a long time to come to terms with that. But they can be reassured that when we do that, it's because the evidence is that folks can live with some of these very slow-growing cancers for many years and in excellent health. And, "If it ain't broke, then don't fix it."

Interviewer: It sounds like to me like you should get a lot of information. Ask your physician a lot of questions, even if you feel they might be stupid questions. Do whatever it takes to kind of mitigate that uncertainty that you have. Do you have any other advice?

Dr. Sweetenham: Yes, first of all, there are no stupid questions. And I think it's really important that everybody understands that. Secondly, choose your cancer care team very carefully. A couple of things that I think are really important; number one, ask your team how many of your type of cancer they treat every year, because that's going to give you some comfort level with their level of expertise.
Ask your cancer care team how they feel about you getting a second opinion. You know, not everybody needs a second opinion; if fact, most people don't. But if your team doesn't want you to get a second opinion, then that's probably a good occasion in which you might want to think about getting one.

Interviewer: Sure.

Dr. Sweetenham: And then finally, for many patients who have a diagnosis of cancer they're going to be interacting with the healthcare team for the next five years. So just make sure that you're comfortable with the team, that they listen to you, that they understand you, that they can explain things to you in a way that you can understand; and that you like them. That's very important.

Interviewer: Yeah. So somebody has been diagnosed with cancer, now what? What's your final thought on that? What would be the one message you'd want that person to hear from you?

Dr. Sweetenham: The information and knowledge about your cancer is the most powerful thing that you can have, so get as much information as you can. And have your friends and family as your support network to actually fill in the gaps of information that you may not necessarily be able to hold onto.

Announcer: We're your daily dose of science, conversation, medicine. This is The Scope on University of Utah Health Sciences Radio.

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