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What To Ask Your Oncologist When You’re Diagnosed With Breast Cancer

Being better informed can help you feel more confident about your care options and decisions

Physician and patient discuss breast health during office appointment

After hearing your healthcare provider say, “You have breast cancer,” it can be hard to focus on any words that follow. Your mind is probably reeling, and you’re not prepared (no one is) to have an in-depth conversation about your prognosis and medical choices.

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But oncologist Jame Abraham, MD, shares 10 key question questions about breast cancer that you should ask your doctor. The answers you receive can help you better understand your breast cancer diagnosis and treatment options.

10 questions to ask your oncologist

Before we delve deeper into what each of these questions means, let’s do a quick overview. Here are 10 key questions to ask your oncologist when you’re diagnosed with breast cancer:

  1. What type of breast cancer do I have?
  2. How big is my tumor?
  3. Is the cancer in my lymph nodes?
  4. What grade is my tumor?
  5. What is my estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor status?
  6. What is my HER2 status?
  7. What stage is my cancer?
  8. What kind of treatments will I need? (What about surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and medication?)
  9. Should I participate in a clinical trial?
  10. What is genomic testing, and what kind will I have done?

There’s one important caveat, Dr. Abraham says: “Keep in mind that your doctor may not have all the answers right away. They may need more time to assess you.”

Having these questions on hand can help you better understand your diagnosis and the process of treatment — so if your doctors don’t have all the answers now, keep them on hand to ask again later.

Let’s talk more about each of these questions, including why they’re so important to understanding your diagnosis and treatment path.

1. What type of breast cancer do I have?

Breast cancers aren’t all the same. Doctors classify them in a number of different ways, starting with where the cancer cells originate. Their origin is a key factor in whether or not your cancer may spread, and that helps dictate the kind of treatment you’ll receive.

Rarer breast cancers may involve your nipple, your breast’s connective tissue or the linings of blood vessels or lymph vessels.

And some breast cancers are noninvasive, meaning they’re contained within your milk ducts and haven’t spread. This is called ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), sometimes known as Stage 0 breast cancer.

“Generally, the prognosis for patients with DCIS is very good,” Dr. Abraham says.

2. How big is my tumor?

The size of your tumor is another important factor in your course of treatment. Your doctor uses the size of your tumor to “stage,” or further categorize, your cancer (explained in detail in the next question).

To determine the estimated dimensions of your tumor, your healthcare providers will perform a physical exam and run tests that may include:

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“The precise size won’t be known until a pathologist studies the tumor after surgical removal,” Dr. Abraham adds.

3. What stage is my cancer?

Cancer staging is a way of classifying your cancer, with Stages 0 (zero) through IV (four) reflecting the size of your tumor and the extent to which it has metastasized (spread). The recent staging guidelines also include biological factors like ER/PR, HER2/neu and grade (which are all explained in detail in the questions below).

“A higher stage means a larger tumor and wider distribution of cancer cells,” Dr. Abraham explains, “like when cancer has spread from your breast to your liver, lungs or brain.”

Your doctor will use staging to plan your treatment, gauge your prognosis and communicate with other cancer specialists. What stage your cancer is will also help determine whether you’re eligible for clinical trials, which offer newer treatment options.

4. Is the cancer in my lymph nodes?

One of the most important predictors of the severity of breast cancer is whether it has spread to your lymph nodes. These bean-shaped organs, located in your armpits and elsewhere throughout your body, are a critical element of your immune system. They act as a filter for the fluid that flows through your cells and tissues.

“Involvement of the lymph nodes can potentially change your treatment plan,” Dr. Abraham states. “When breast cancer cells have spread to the lymph nodes, we may discuss more aggressive treatment options, like chemotherapy.”

5. What grade is my tumor?

Tumor grading isn’t the same as staging. Both are indicators of your cancer’s severity and prognosis, but they use different criteria.

Staging deals with the tumor size, location and distribution of cancer cells in your body. Grading is based on how the cancer cells appear under a microscope. Abnormal-looking cells are more likely to quickly grow and spread.

Grades usually run from 1 to 3, and a higher grade represents more rapidly dividing cells — a more aggressive cancer. “It’s possible to have a Stage I tumor that is relatively small and contained but that is also a Grade 3, more aggressive cancer,” Dr. Abraham clarifies.

6. What is my estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor status?

Your body’s hormones, especially estrogen and progesterone, may play a role in how your breast cancer progresses because cancer cells can have hormone receptors that allow them to tap into your body’s regulation of normal cell growth.

To determine your estrogen receptor and progesterone receptor (ER/PR) status, your doctor will order a breast biopsy to test a sample of cancerous cells. About 70% of those with breast cancer are ER/PR-positive, and the outlook for these tumors is better than for ER/PR-negative tumors.

Your oncologist may prescribe medications like:

  • Tamoxifen, an anti-estrogen drug to block estrogen’s growth signal.
  • Aromatase inhibitors, a type of hormone therapy that lowers your body’s estrogen levels to deprive cancer cells of fuel.
  • CDK4/6 inhibitors, which reduce the chances of recurrence.

“There are very effective approaches,” Dr. Abraham says, “and ER/PR-positive patients may be advised to take anti-estrogen pills for as long as five to 10 years.”

If your cancer is ER/PR-negative, though, these treatments aren’t an option.

“ER/PR-negative tumors that are more aggressive can’t be treated this way. Because they lack receptors; anti-estrogen pills don’t work,” Dr. Abraham explains. “In these cases, chemotherapy is generally the preferred treatment.”

7. What is my HER2 status?

HER2, which stands for “human epidermal growth factor receptor 2,” is another type of growth signal receptor (sometimes known as an antenna) that may be present on your breast cancer cells. About 25% of breast cancers are HER2-positive.

This diagnosis brings both good and bad news. The bad: HER2-positive tumors tend to grow more aggressively than HER2-negative tumors. The good news is that there are medicines that can target the HER2 growth receptor.

“A number of HER2-targeted drugs are extremely effective at this, and they’ve dramatically improved the prognosis for HER2-positive patients,” Dr. Abraham says. “Treatment outcomes are now as good as those with HER2-negative tumors.”

For some HER2-positive tumors — those bigger than half a centimeter or that have spread into the lymph nodes — your provider may recommend treating with chemotherapy along with medication to target the HER2 receptor.

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8. What kind of treatment will I need?

This isn’t a straightforward question and it has a potentially complex answer, depending on the specifics of your tumor and your overall health. Most people with breast cancer require multiple types of treatment.

Let’s break down some of the specific possibilities.

Will I need surgery?

This is an important question, but the answer may be less than definitive, especially in the beginning.

“It will vary from patient to patient, and you may have more than one choice,” Dr. Abraham notes. Plus, he says that not all breast cancers can initially be surgically removed.

The American Cancer Society reports that most people who have breast cancer have some type of surgery. In some cases, whether to operate and the type of surgery may depend on factors like:

  • The cancer’s stage.
  • The size of the tumor.
  • HER2 status.
  • Whether the tumor is triple-negative (meaning that it’s both ER/PR-negative and HER2-negative).
  • The location of the tumor.
  • The size of your breast.
  • Your personal preference.
  • Genetic testing results.
If I do need surgery, what kind should I have?

For breast cancers that are operable, the two broad categories of choices are:

  • Lumpectomy, a breast-conserving surgery often paired with radiation.
  • Mastectomy, the removal of most or all breast tissue (sometimes including nearby lymph nodes).

“Talk with your oncologist and breast surgeon, and if you have any doubts, you may choose to seek a second opinion,” Dr. Abraham advises.

Will I need radiation?

Oncologists generally recommend radiation treatment for people with breast cancer who have surgery only to remove their tumor (lumpectomy) or whose cancer had spread to the lymph nodes.

If you have a mastectomy, your healthcare team may also recommend radiation if you’re considered high-risk. Some factors they may consider include whether:

  • Your tumor is larger than 5 centimeters.
  • Your lymph nodes are involved.
  • You have other high-risk biological features.

“Your radiation oncologist will help you to make this decision based on your risks and benefits,” Dr. Abraham says.

Will I need chemotherapy?

Chemotherapy, which uses drugs to destroy cancer cells or slow their growth, is a consideration for patients with high-risk breast cancers.

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You may need chemotherapy if:

  • The tumor is higher-grade, ER/PR-negative, HER2-negative or triple-negative.
  • The tumor is HER2-positive.
  • Your lymph nodes are involved.
  • Your cancer has a high likelihood of recurrence, based on the result of genomic testing.

“Chemotherapy is given as an outpatient treatment every two or three weeks for three to six months, delivered either directly into a vein or through a port,” Dr. Abraham explains.

Are there medications that can help?

There’s no single way to treat breast cancer. Your specific treatment will depend on the tumor’s ER/PR/HER2 status, the stage, the risk of it coming back, how advanced it is and other factors.

Immunotherapy is a cancer treatment that uses your body’s immune system to find and destroy cancer cells.

“If the tumor is triple-negative and locally advanced — meaning that it’s Stage II and above — your treatment may include an immunotherapy called pembrolizumab (Keytruda®) to shrink the tumor,” Dr. Abraham says. “Then, immunotherapy is continued for a year.”

If your breast cancer is HER2-positive, your treatment will include HER2-targeted medicines like:

But these medicines aren’t chemotherapy. “While you’re taking them, the hair you lost during chemotherapy will regrow, and your energy level will improve,” Dr. Abraham adds.

If you have a tumor that’s ER/PR-positive, you’ll be prescribed anti-estrogen therapy. Your doctor may also talk to you about newer medications, like CDK 4/6 inhibitors such as abemaciclib (Verzenio®).

If you carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene and have a high-risk tumor, your doctor may talk to you about new medicines like olaparib (Lynparza®).

Will I need to take any long-term medications?

If you have an ER/PR-positive breast tumor, oncologists recommend continuing anti-estrogen therapy for five to 10 years after your cancer treatment, unless there are medical contraindications (specific reasons why you shouldn’t).

Usually, anti-estrogen therapy is a once-a-day pill. If you haven’t yet entered menopause, tamoxifen (Nolvadex® or Soltamox®) is the most commonly prescribed medicine; postmenopausal patients have many options.

“In addition, we use other long-term medicines like olaparib for people with BRCA gene mutation and abemaciclib for people with ER/PR-positive, HER2-negative tumors with high-risk features,” Dr. Abraham adds. “We may also use bone-protective medicines like zoledronic acid to strengthen the bone and reduce the chance of recurrence for about three to four years.”

9. Should I participate in a clinical trial?

Breast cancer treatment has improved tremendously in the past years, thanks to people’s willingness to take part in tests of newer treatment options. ​

“For any stage of breast cancer, a well-done clinical trial could be your best treatment option,” Dr. Abraham notes. “If you qualify for such a trial, your doctor can answer any questions you have about participating so that you can determine if it’s a good fit for you.”

10. What is genomic testing, and what kind will I have done?

There are two types of genomic testing: germline and somatic. They test for possible genetic mutations in your cells.

Germline testing reveals whether you carry a gene that puts you at high risk for breast cancer or other cancers, like the BRCA1 or BRCA2 mutations.

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Some of the risk factors for abnormal genes include:

  • Having a strong family history of breast cancer, ovarian cancer, pancreatic cancer, prostate cancer or other cancers.
  • Being under the age of 50.
  • Having triple-negative breast cancer.

“Usually, we recommend a consultation with a genetic counselor to finalize the risk and benefit of genetic testing,” Dr. Abraham says.

“Genomic tests like Oncotype DX® or MammaPrint® can help your healthcare team better understand the behavior of the tumor,” he continues. “This can help predict the chance of recurrence or benefit from various forms of therapy, including the benefit from chemotherapy.”

These tests aren’t done for HER2-positive or triple-negative tumors.

Other questions to ask about breast cancer

We’ve talked about many of the science-driven questions behind your diagnosis. But there are plenty of other questions you may want to ask, too, with answers that can vary greatly. They include:

  • In your opinion, what is my prognosis?
  • Can I get a second opinion?
  • Who will be on my cancer care team? What are their roles?
  • Do I need any additional tests and procedures in order to move forward with treatment?
  • How can I get a copy of my pathology report?
  • What are my treatment options? Which do you recommend, and why?
  • What do you see as the goals of my treatment?
  • How soon do I need to begin treatment, and how long is treatment likely to take?
  • What can I do to prepare myself for treatment?
  • What supports and resources are available to me?

There’s no need to ask everything all at once — and your care team likely won’t have all the answers upfront anyway. Take time to process things and keep a list of questions to ask along the way.

Keep the lines of communication open

After being diagnosed with breast cancer, you’re probably feeling scared and more than a little bit overwhelmed. But keep this list on hand, and don’t be afraid to ask questions — or to follow up on anything that your doctors don’t yet know the answers to.

“The more informed you are as a patient, the more you can actively and confidently participate in your care decisions,” Dr. Abraham encourages.

Learn more about our editorial process.

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