What to Ask a Physician When Diagnosed with a Terminal Condition

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Female doctor discussing treatment with a patient
Published:  September 18, 2023

When a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal condition, it’s normal to have feelings of sadness, anxiety, confusion, and even fear. Talking to a physician about your uncertainties and concerns can help, as knowledge can grant a certain level of peace of mind. By learning more about the diagnosis and recommended treatment plan, you also can take an active role in planning for your loved one’s care. While discussing end-of-life care is never easy, you’ll feel better knowing that you’re doing what’s best for your loved one. Ask some of the following important questions and open the line of communication.

  1. What is the specific name of the condition?

One of the first things you should discuss with your loved one’s physician is the exact nature of the condition and its severity. You may have specific questions about the condition such as what body system it affects and what causes it. For a terminal illness like cancer, you may want to ask what stage your loved one is in and what you can expect during each stage going forward. Having this knowledge can give you better insight into the best course of action and provide you with important information so that you can continue researching the condition on your own.

  1. Does the condition move quickly or gradually?

Depending on the terminal condition, your loved one may have a medical condition that is fast or slow-moving. Learning where the condition is in the body, as well as the average course of the condition, can help determine how much time your loved one has left. Remember that a physician can only estimate your loved one’s life expectancy. He or she will usually consider several diagnostic tests to determine the severity of the terminal condition, how it’s affecting the body, and at what rate.

  1. What treatment options are available?

When your loved one is faced with a diagnosis of a terminal condition, a normal response is to want to do everything in your power to make it go away. While it may not be possible to cure the condition, there may be treatments available to better manage symptoms. Ask the physician about possible treatment options or a combination of treatments. You may also want to learn the expected timeline of treatments, how they will affect your loved one’s daily life, and if they are likely to cause any serious side effects. You may also want to ask about clinical trials.

  1. What happens if treatment doesn’t work?

There’s always a possibility that the chosen treatment plan fails to work. When this happens, having a backup plan can provide both you and your loved one with a bit of comfort knowing you have other options. Ask the physician about the next step if the treatment plan fails to work as expected. Even if your loved one’s choice of contemporary medicine treatments is limited, there may be certain lifestyle changes that can aid in symptom management, such as changes in diet and exercise.

  1. What side effects will be experienced?

In addition to the actual condition causing unpleasant symptoms, the treatments your loved one chooses to undergo may also cause many symptoms. Knowing what symptoms to expect can help you better manage them before they worsen. Ask the physician what your loved one can expect in terms of side effects in both the short term and long term. You can also ask if there are any ways to prevent side effects.

  1. Who will be involved with care?

Your loved one’s healthcare team should consist of a variety of professionals, including physicians, nurses, specialists, therapists, religious supporters, and palliative care or hospice providers. Together, these professionals can implement strategies to help meet the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of your loved one. Learn how each member of the team plays a role in your loved one’s end-of-life care and how you can play a part in providing care and companionship. While every member of your loved one’s healthcare team is important, you’ll want to find out who oversees the treatment plan and maintain regular communication.

  1. What is palliative care and how does it help?

Many patients facing a terminal condition turn to palliative care to improve their quality of life. Palliative care focuses on providing the patient with relief from symptoms and the stress associated with a terminal condition. This unique care approach is provided by a specially trained team of physicians, nurses, and other specialists who work together to provide the patient and his or her family with additional support. Talk to the physician about whether your loved one could benefit from palliative care and when it’s best to begin.

  1. When should we start thinking about hospice?

Hospice is a specialized set of services offered to patients with life-limiting illnesses, their caregivers, and their families. While both hospice and palliative care provide comfort to the patient, hospice care only begins after treatment of the disease is stopped and when it becomes clear that the patient is not going to survive their illness. Ask the physician when you should seek hospice care and how it can benefit your loved one. Hospice care can address the patient’s physical, social, emotional, and spiritual needs, as well as help family members cope with their loved one’s terminal condition.

Finding out that your loved one has a terminal condition can be shocking for everyone involved. However, as a family member or close friend, you want the best for your loved one. Asking questions about your loved one’s terminal condition can provide better insight into what you can expect to occur in the upcoming weeks or months and what you can do to ensure that the patient receives the absolute best care. To learn more about hospice care and how it can help benefit the quality of your loved one’s end of life, click the request care button below.

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