What to Know Before You Go

Some minor pains and aches can be safely ignored; others could land a patient in the intensive care unit, or worse. The best defense is to be prepared, beginning the day of the cancer diagnosis.

When patients leave the hospital or doctor’s office after a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, they should have a written description of the type of cancer they have, the stage, the treatment and the monitoring plan. They should ask the doctor which signs and symptoms could signal complications from the cancer or the treatment that would warrant a trip to the emergency room, and how they differ from signals that the cancer is progressing. Patients should also ask how to reach the practice after hours, because it is always better to reach someone who knows their case or has access to their records.

Once home, patients should make a one-page fact sheet listing the phone numbers of their care team, the name of the cancer, the type of treatment they’re receiving and where the cancer is being treated. They should also make certain that caregivers and family members have this information. If patients must visit the emergency room, it is preferable to have the on-call oncologist telephone in advance to provide ER personnel essential information and to help coordinate care. “This is just common sense, but it’s amazing when you’re in the midst of an emergency how hard it is to think of those kinds of things,” says Deborah Mayer, an advanced practice oncology nurse and researcher at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill.

[Preparing for a Cancer-Related Emergency]

Caregivers need to be aware of possible issues because patients can miss the significance of certain symptoms, such as severe pain, weakness or delirium, which require immediate attention.

In general, it’s better to be overcautious and report symptoms right away. Patients might need to be persistent, especially if they’re not getting the attention they need. “What we want to do is tell people if something is worrisome or bothersome, it’s a phone call away from either having their mind put at ease or to pick up a potentially serious problem earlier,” Mayer says. 

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