Skip to content

The First Few Appointments

How to get all the answers you need

The impact of suddenly confronting a life-threatening illness like breast cancer can overwhelm the most disciplined brain. The mind enters fight or flight mode, where every decision is about survival with little thought for details.
Breast cancer survivors who have undergone surgery as part of their treatment often describe the entire period between diagnosis and surgery as “a big blur.” With their minds still stunned by the diagnosis, they attempt to discuss surgery with their doctor, only to find themselves unable to process information or formulate questions effectively.

To help get all of the facts down, many patient counselors suggest bringing along a spouse or friend who can help ask questions and retain answers. Others suggest writing down all of the questions you can think to ask before your scheduled appointment, then writing down or tape recording the answers as they are received.

If you, a friend, or a loved one face breast cancer surgery, the following questions are a good start toward getting answers about the upcoming operation and the road that lies ahead. You may want to print these questions out and carry them with you, so you’ll be prepared when you meet with the referring physician or the surgeon who will be performing the procedure.
“Breast cancer survivors who have undergone surgery as part of their treatment often describe the entire period between diagnosis and surgery as “a big blur.”

You may also find other professionals in the physician’s or surgeon’s office that can help answer many of these questions as well.

  • What is the name for the type breast cancer I have?
  • Why is surgery recommended?
  • Are there non-surgical alternatives?
  • What is the name for the type of surgery that I am to undergo?
  • Will I be sedated or will I undergo general anesthesia?
  • What are the risks of this type of surgery?
  • Do I have any medical conditions that will make this surgery riskier?
  • Will I need plastic or reconstructive surgery after this procedure? If so, can it be done at the same time? If not, how long should I wait?
  • Will reconstructive surgery make it harder to detect a recurrence of cancer in the affected breast?
  • If I do not have reconstructive surgery; are there prosthetic products available for the affected breast? How about for a lumpectomy?
  • How long will I be in the operating room?
  • How long will I be in recovery?
  • Will I then go home, to a regular room, or to ICU?
  • How soon can I have visitors?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • How much pain will I be in?
  • Will I receive medication for pain?
  • Do you have pictures of women that have undergone similar surgery?
  • What kind of scar will I have?
  • Are there steps I can take to lessen the appearance of my scar?
  • Will I have lymph nodes removed? If so, how many?
  • Will this put me at increased risk for lymphedema?
  • How will we know if the surgery was a success?
  • How soon after my surgery will I see you and get a progress report?
  • Will I have a drain attached to the affected area when I am discharged? If so, will I get instructions on how to use it?
  • How soon after my discharge should I come back to see you for follow-up?
  • What are the restrictions on what I can do at home?
  • Will I be given written instructions for home care when I am discharged?
  • Can you recommend a counselor for my emotional well-being if I need someone to talk to?

Will I need any kind of physical therapy? If so, can you recommend a therapist?

You should also take along some blank paper to jot down last minute questions or instructions as they occur.

Remember, it’s normal to have a hard time staying focused when your health is threatened. Making question lists like the one above, and writing down the answers is a healthy way of keeping your facts straight while you concentrate on the battle ahead.