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Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®)

Patient Version
Last Modified: 03/06/2013

Overview



Good communication between patients, family caregivers, and the health care team is very important in cancer care.

Good communication between patients with cancer, family caregivers, and the health care team helps improve patients' well-being and quality of life. Communicating about concerns and decision making is important during all phases of treatment and supportive care for cancer.

The goals of good communication in cancer care are to:

  • Build a trusting relationship between the patient, family caregivers, and the health care team.
  • Help the patient, family caregivers, and health care team share information with each other.
  • Help the patient and family talk about feelings and concerns.

Patients with cancer have special communication needs.

Patients, their families, and their health care team face many issues when cancer is diagnosed. Cancer is a life-threatening illness, even though advances in treatments have increased the chances of a cure or remission. A patient who is diagnosed with cancer may feel fear and anxiety about treatments that are often difficult, expensive, and complicated. Decisions about the patient's care can be very hard to make. Good communication can help patients, families, and doctors make these decisions together and improve the patient's well-being and quality of life.

Studies show that when patients and doctors communicate well during cancer care, there are many positive results. Patients are usually:

  • More satisfied with care and feel more in control.
  • More likely to follow through with treatment.
  • More informed.
  • More likely to take part in a clinical trial.
  • Better able to make the change from care that is given to treat the cancer to palliative care.

Some patients and families want a lot of information and choose to make decisions about care.

Patients and their families should let the health care team know how much information they want about the cancer and its treatment. Some patients and families want a lot of detailed information. Others want less detail. Also, the need for information may change as the patient moves through diagnosis and treatment. Some patients with advanced disease want less information about their condition.

There may be differences in how involved patients and families want to be in making decisions about cancer care. Some patients and families may want to be very involved and make their own decisions about cancer care. Others may want to leave decisions to the doctor.

Communication is important at different points during cancer care.

Communication is important throughout cancer care, but especially when important decisions are to be made. These important decision times include:

  • When the patient is first diagnosed.
  • Any time new decisions about treatment need to be made.
  • After treatment, when discussing how well it worked.
  • Whenever the goal of care changes.
  • When the patient makes his or her wishes known about advance directives, such as a living will.

End-of life discussions with the health care team may lead to fewer procedures and better quality of life.

Studies have shown that cancer patients who have end-of-life discussions with their doctors choose to have fewer procedures, such as resuscitation or the use of a ventilator. They are also less likely to be in intensive care, and the cost of their health care is lower during their final week of life. Reports from their caregivers show that these patients live as long as patients who choose to have more procedures and that they have a better quality of life in their last days.

This summary is about communication needs in adults and children with cancer. Section titles show when the information is about children.