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Communication in Cancer Care (PDQ®)–Patient Version


Key Points

  • Good communication between people with cancer, their family, and the health care team is important in cancer care.
  • Families may experience communication challenges.

Good communication between people with cancer, their family, and the health care team is important in cancer care.

Good communication with your family and the health care team can create a trusting relationship that positively affects many parts of your cancer journey.

The goals of good communication in cancer care are to:

  • Build a trusting relationship with your health care team.
  • Learn from your health care team about your cancer diagnosis.
  • Discuss your options for treatment and care throughout your cancer journey.
  • Improve your well-being and quality of life.

You will face many decisions when you are diagnosed with cancer. Tell your health care team about concerns you may have during treatment, and if you have problems coping with the cancer diagnosis and journey.

Studies show that there are many positive results when people with cancer and their doctors communicate well during cancer care. Positive results include:

  • More satisfaction with care.
  • More likely to follow through with treatment.
  • Better quality of life.
  • Reduced anxiety and other symptoms.
  • More likely to take part in a clinical trial.
  • Improved knowledge of the disease and prognosis.
  • Preferred care is received at end of life.

Ask for a patient navigator if you need help communicating with your doctor. A patient navigator can guide you through the health care system and help you communicate with your health care team, so you get the information you need to make decisions about your care.

Families may experience communication challenges.

Cancer can be an emotional experience. You may want to hide feelings of distress and sadness and act normal to protect your family and friends. This is also often true for friends and family. Talking about cancer-related issues may help reduce stress for you and your family. Family-focused psychotherapy may also benefit you and your family.

Cultural and Demographic Factors in Communication

Key Points

  • People may have a preferred way to receive information from their health care team.
  • Culture can also affect communication.

People may have a preferred way to receive information from their health care team.

You may ask for written instructions and phone calls, or you may prefer texts and emails. Let your health care team know how you want to receive your information about your cancer and cancer treatment.

Culture can also affect communication.

Some cultures place a greater emphasis on communication with the family as a whole unit, while other cultures focus more on the patient’s ability to make their own decisions. Tell your health care team how much information you want to receive.

Your religious beliefs may be a source of strength and coping for you. Tell your health care team about any spiritual and religious needs and concerns you want them to know about. For more information, see Spirituality in Cancer Care.

Communication in Pediatric Cancer Care

Key Points

  • Many parents want to know their child’s prognosis.
  • Children with cancer need information that is right for their age.
  • Children may wish to know what is going on when someone they love has cancer.

Many parents want to know their child’s prognosis.

When your child has cancer, you will likely have questions about how serious the cancer is, and your child’s chances of survival. The likely outcome or course of a disease is called prognosis. Learning your child’s prognosis may be upsetting, but knowing this information can help you and your loved ones make decisions. Your child’s doctor is in the best position to talk with you about your child’s prognosis, if you want to know that information.

Children with cancer need information that is right for their age.

Studies show that children with cancer want to know about their illness and how it will be treated. The amount of information a child may want to know depends in part on their age. Most children worry about how their illness and treatment will affect their daily lives and the people around them. Studies also show that children have less doubt and fear when they are given age-appropriate information about their illness, even if it is bad news.

Children may wish to know what is going on when someone they love has cancer.

When a parent has cancer, the child may have high levels of distress. Children may also experience anxiety and distress when they see a sibling going through cancer therapy or dying. Children do better when family members or the health care team talk with them about what to expect and answer their questions. For ways to help teens cope and communicate when a loved one has cancer, see Support for Teens When a Family Member Has Cancer.

Electronic Communication in Cancer Care

Key Points

  • Many health care teams reach out to people with cancer using electronic methods.

Many health care teams reach out to people with cancer using electronic methods.

A method of communication that is used frequently in medicine is eHealth. eHealth refers to the use of digital technology, such as home computers, mobile devices, and the Internet to seek and communicate health information. eHealth helps:

  • Promote clear communication among patients, family members, and the health care team.
  • Enhance shared decision making.
  • Improve how patients communicate their concerns to the health care team.
  • Provide social support to patients.
  • Provide clinical trial information.

Learn More About Communicating When a Family Member Has Cancer

Current Clinical Trials

Use our clinical trial search to find NCI-supported cancer clinical trials that are accepting patients. You can search for trials based on the type of cancer, the age of the patient, and where the trials are being done. General information about clinical trials is also available.

About This PDQ Summary

About PDQ

Physician Data Query (PDQ) is the National Cancer Institute's (NCI's) comprehensive cancer information database. The PDQ database contains summaries of the latest published information on cancer prevention, detection, genetics, treatment, supportive care, and complementary and alternative medicine. Most summaries come in two versions. The health professional versions have detailed information written in technical language. The patient versions are written in easy-to-understand, nontechnical language. Both versions have cancer information that is accurate and up to date and most versions are also available in Spanish.

PDQ is a service of the NCI. The NCI is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH). NIH is the federal government’s center of biomedical research. The PDQ summaries are based on an independent review of the medical literature. They are not policy statements of the NCI or the NIH.

Purpose of This Summary

This PDQ cancer information summary has current information about communicating with the cancer patient and his or her family. It is meant to inform and help patients, families, and caregivers. It does not give formal guidelines or recommendations for making decisions about health care.

Reviewers and Updates

Editorial Boards write the PDQ cancer information summaries and keep them up to date. These Boards are made up of experts in cancer treatment and other specialties related to cancer. The summaries are reviewed regularly and changes are made when there is new information. The date on each summary ("Updated") is the date of the most recent change.

The information in this patient summary was taken from the health professional version, which is reviewed regularly and updated as needed, by the PDQ Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board.

Clinical Trial Information

A clinical trial is a study to answer a scientific question, such as whether one treatment is better than another. Trials are based on past studies and what has been learned in the laboratory. Each trial answers certain scientific questions in order to find new and better ways to help cancer patients. During treatment clinical trials, information is collected about the effects of a new treatment and how well it works. If a clinical trial shows that a new treatment is better than one currently being used, the new treatment may become "standard." Patients may want to think about taking part in a clinical trial. Some clinical trials are open only to patients who have not started treatment.

Clinical trials can be found online at NCI's website. For more information, call the Cancer Information Service (CIS), NCI's contact center, at 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237).

Permission to Use This Summary

PDQ is a registered trademark. The content of PDQ documents can be used freely as text. It cannot be identified as an NCI PDQ cancer information summary unless the whole summary is shown and it is updated regularly. However, a user would be allowed to write a sentence such as “NCI’s PDQ cancer information summary about breast cancer prevention states the risks in the following way: [include excerpt from the summary].”

The best way to cite this PDQ summary is:

PDQ® Supportive and Palliative Care Editorial Board. PDQ Communication in Cancer Care. Bethesda, MD: National Cancer Institute. Updated <MM/DD/YYYY>. Available at: Accessed <MM/DD/YYYY>. [PMID: 26389345]

Images in this summary are used with permission of the author(s), artist, and/or publisher for use in the PDQ summaries only. If you want to use an image from a PDQ summary and you are not using the whole summary, you must get permission from the owner. It cannot be given by the National Cancer Institute. Information about using the images in this summary, along with many other images related to cancer can be found in Visuals Online. Visuals Online is a collection of more than 3,000 scientific images.


The information in these summaries should not be used to make decisions about insurance reimbursement. More information on insurance coverage is available on on the Managing Cancer Care page.

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