October 28, 2022
Learning you have breast cancer can certainly be an emotional and overwhelming experience. After hearing your diagnosis, you may have a lot of questions. Where do we go from here? What happens next? What are my treatment options? Your cancer care team is here to answer these questions and help you navigate your treatment journey.
At your first appointment, your doctor and other members of your medical team will help you understand your diagnosis and potential treatment options. This can be a lot of information at once. It might be hard to absorb it all, and that’s OK. Preparing for your appointment ahead of time can help you get your questions answered and make the most of your time with your care team.
In this post, we’ll talk about what you can expect at your first breast cancer
appointment and some ways to prepare.
What can you expect at your first breast cancer appointment?
After receiving a breast cancer diagnosis, you will most likely see a surgeon first. You may also see a medical oncologist or a radiation oncologist. Oncologists specialize in the treatment of people with cancer. 1
Cancer treatment takes a team approach. Throughout your journey, you’ll probably have several appointments with different specialists. Sometimes, you may see more than one person in a day. When scheduling an appointment, it’s OK to ask what kind of doctors you will see and what you can expect.
It’s also important to know that you don’t have to make any decisions right away at your first appointment. It’s a good idea to think about your options at home for a while or discuss them with the important people in your life. The decision to pursue any treatment options should be shared between you and your medical team.
Some people decide to get a second opinion from another doctor before making any decisions. This is completely up to you. Many insurance companies cover appointments for second opinions. 1 You can call your insurance company if you’re not sure.
The members of your cancer team all work toward a common goal: supporting you in the best way possible. Below, we’ll discuss who you might meet during some of your early appointments or perhaps your first appointment.
What kinds of doctors or specialists will you see?
Surgery is the first step of the treatment process for many people with breast cancer. Surgeons diagnose and remove cancer from the breast or the neighboring lymph nodes (the glands under the arm).
A surgeon can tell you more about the types of surgery used to remove cancer and which may be a good option for you. The type of surgery you have depends on the size and location of your tumor and how far the cancer has spread. Types of surgeries include:
- a mastectomy (removal of the breast tissue)
- a lumpectomy, also called breast-conserving surgery (partial removal of the breast tissue)
- lymph node dissection (removal of lymph node(s) to determine if cancer has spread to your lymph system) 2
Surgery is a localized treatment, which means it treats the cancer site specifically. The surgeon may refer you to a medical oncologist who can provide systemic treatments that affect the whole body, such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. The surgeon may also refer you to a radiation oncologist (see below).
Your surgeon may work with a plastic surgeon who can help you feel satisfied with how your breast looks after surgery. A plastic surgeon can perform breast reconstruction to rebuild your breast tissue after your cancer is removed. 2
A medical oncologist is a doctor who specializes in cancer diagnosis and treatment and uses treatment that goes through your whole system if needed. When you meet with your medical oncologist, you may talk about the following:
- the stage of cancer you have (0, I, II, III, or IV)
- your likelihood of survival and how you can improve it
- the characteristics of your cancer and how they may affect your prognosis
- the risk that your cancer may come back
A medical oncologist can also talk you through the pros and cons of different treatment methods, including:
- hormonal/endocrine therapy
- targeted therapy 1
A radiation oncologist is someone who specializes in radiation therapy for the treatment of cancer. Radiation therapy can shrink tumors and reduce the chance of the cancer returning after surgery. 3 A radiation oncologist can help you determine whether radiation therapy is right for you. You’ll discuss this therapy’s potential benefits and risks based on your situation.
A cancer care team can include more than just doctors. In addition to treating your cancer, members of your care team can support you mentally and emotionally through this process. Support can range from helping you cope with the side effects of treatment to understanding treatment costs and insurance coverage.
Throughout your visits, you may meet with:
- patient navigators
- social workers
- spiritual counselors 4
- exercise specialists
- financial counselors 5
These specialists provide what is called supportive care and work with the other members of your team.
Tips for preparing for your first appointment
Care for yourself and your emotions
Your first visit may spark a lot of emotions, and however you’re feeling, your feelings are valid. Breast cancer is a big disruption to your everyday life and affects everyone differently. It can be overwhelming and scary to hear about your prognosis and take in so much new information.
If you’re feeling anxious in the days leading up to your appointment, it may help to talk about how you’re feeling with a friend or loved one. You don’t have to carry your fear on your own.
On the day of the appointment, plan to arrive a few minutes early so you have time to fill out any paperwork and find a moment of calm. Relaxation techniques such as mindfulness, breathing exercises, or meditation can help with anxiety and be done anywhere, anytime. 6
Ask someone to come with you to your appointment
You’ll have a lot of information to process during your first breast cancer appointment. A partner, family member, or close friend can provide emotional support and help you cope during what can be an overwhelming time. They can also serve as a second set of ears as you gather information about your treatment options.
Prepare a few questions
We recommend preparing some questions you might have for your doctor before your first appointment. In general, we recommend that you prepare no more than three to five questions. This can help keep you from feeling overwhelmed. You don’t have to worry about getting every bit of information right now. Asking questions also helps your care provider learn more about what you already know regarding your diagnosis.
Here are some questions some people ask at their first appointment:
- What can I expect during future appointments?
- How soon do I need to decide about treatment?
- Should I make any lifestyle changes?
- Who is on my cancer care team? 1
Take notes or audio recordings
It can be hard to remember all of this new information. We suggest taking notes on your conversations with your doctor so that you can refer to them later. If you’re bringing a support person, you can ask them to take notes for you.
Your doctor may use some words you’ve never heard before. It’s OK to ask your doctor to slow down, repeat something, or explain something in more detail.
Some people find it helpful to audio-record their appointments on their phone or another recording device so that they can play them back later.
Be sure to ask your doctor’s permission before recording and explain why you want to.
Gather your information
Having all of your information in one place can help you feel more prepared for your appointment. Your oncologist may want to know more about your medical history, current medications, and the results of any tests or scans you’ve had. 7 Gather any paperwork you have and bring it to your appointment along with your prepared questions. Store any notes you take and any handouts you receive in one place, like a folder or filing cabinet.
After your appointment
The end of your appointment doesn’t have to be the end of the conversation. If you realize you still have questions after your appointment, you can write them down and bring them to your next appointment. Your doctors will also give you ways to contact them, whether by phone or sending them a message through your online patient portal. You can
use these methods to contact your team with questions or concerns you have between appointments.
Learning more about what to expect and making some small preparations beforehand can help you make the most of your first breast cancer appointment. You’ll meet with one or more care providers and work together to develop an individualized plan for your treatment. Oncologists are cancer specialists who can help you understand your diagnosis, prognosis, and the risks and benefits of different treatments. Bringing a support person and taking notes during the appointment can help you cope with and process this new information.
1 Newly diagnosed with breast cancer: Now what? Affiliated Oncologists.
https://aocancer.com/education-resources/types-of-cancer/breast-cancer/newly-diagnosed. Accessed October 17, 2022.
2 Breast cancer surgery: Types, procedure & recovery. Cleveland Clinic.
Published May 18, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022.
3 Radiation Therapy. Breastcancer.org. https://www.breastcancer.org/treatment/radiation-therapy. Published July 27, 2022. Accessed August 29, 2022.
4 Your Health Care Team: Understanding Their Roles. CancerCare.
https://www.cancercare.org/publications/59your_health_care_team_understanding_their_roles. Published January 7, 2021. Accessed October 17, 2022.
5 Your Breast Cancer Care Team. The University of Kansas Cancer Center.
https://www.kucancercenter.org/cancer/cancer-types/breast-cancer/breast-cancer-care-team. Accessed October 17, 2022.
6 Managing anxiety before check-ups. Cancer Council NSW.
https://www.cancercouncil.com.au/cancer-information/living-well/after-cancer-treatment/follow-up-care/managing-anxiety-before-check-ups/. Published February 22, 2022. Accessed October 17, 2022.
7 Napolitano E. Making the most of your first appointment with your oncologist. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. https://www.mskcc.org/news/making-most-your-first-appointment-your-oncologist. Published March 10, 2015. Accessed October 17, 2022.