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Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®)

  • Last Modified: 03/06/2013

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The Role of Family Caregivers



Family caregivers are partners in communication.

Families can help patients make better decisions about their cancer care. Patients and their family members can join together as partners to communicate with the doctor and health care team. When possible, patients should decide how much help they want from family members when making decisions. Communication between family caregivers and the health care team should continue throughout cancer care. It should include information about the goals of treatment, plans for the patient's care, and what to expect over time.

Communication with the doctor helps caregivers as well as patients.

Communication that includes the patient and family is called family-centered communication. Family-centered communication with the doctor helps the family understand its role in caregiving. Family caregivers who get specific and practical direction from the health care team are more confident about giving care. When caregivers receive this help, they can give the patient better care.

Language and culture can affect communication.

Communication can be more difficult if the doctor does not speak the same language as the patient and family, or if there are cultural differences. Every patient with cancer has the right to get clear information about the diagnosis and treatment so he or she can take full part in making decisions. Most medical centers have trained interpreters or have other ways to help with language differences.

If cultural beliefs will affect decisions about treatment and care, the health care team should be told about these beliefs. For example, a common Western belief is that an informed patient should make the final decision about cancer care.

There may be problems with communication.

There are many things that can block communication between the patient and doctor. This can happen if:

  • The patient does not fully understand all the facts about treatment.
  • The medical information is not given in a way the patient can understand.
  • The patient believes the doctor will tell them the important facts about treatment and doesn't ask questions.
  • The patient is afraid to ask too many questions.
  • The patient is afraid to take too much of the doctor's time and doesn't ask questions.

Family caregivers can sometimes help when communication problems come up.

For more information see the PDQ summary Family Caregivers in Cancer.