Cancer Care in the United States: Common Practices and Expectations

Newcomers to the United States are understandably puzzled by the practices and expectations – the cultural norms – of cancer care in this country because they often differ from what is practiced elsewhere.

The Cancer Resource Center of the Finger Lakes and the Translator Interpreter Program of Cornell University are working together to make this information available and accessible. The Cancer Resource Center, with input from colleagues from throughout the country, developed a brief description of these customs, and the Translator Interpreter Program is translating the English version into other languages.

The text in English:

People who are new to the United States are often unfamiliar with the common practices and usual expectations of doctors and other medical professional who take care of those with cancer. This is especially true for how doctors and patients communicate. For example:

  • Doctors usually speak directly with the person who has cancer. Family members may be included, but it is assumed that patients – with input from their family – will make decisions regarding their care.
  • Doctors and patients are considered partners in care. The doctor makes recommendations, but no treatment will be given without a patient’s consent.
  • Doctors are honest with their patients. They will tell patients about the cancer and explain if it is likely curable, if it requires long term treatment, or if it is potentially life-threatening.
  • Patients are encouraged to ask their doctor questions if they do not understand something or if they want more information. Doctors should always take the time to make sure that their patient’s questions and concerns are addressed. Hospitals and medical offices can provide interpreters if the patient is more comfortable speaking in a language other than English.
  • A female patient can always request to have a female nurse or other staff person present during an examination if the doctor is a male.
  • Controlling pain and nausea is very important and no one should suffer. If patients experience pain, nausea, along with other symptoms or side effects, they should tell their doctor or nurse. Treating that pain often helps patients heal more quickly.
  • Patients always have the right to change their minds. Beginning treatment does not commit patients to continuing treatment.
  • Medical information is kept confidential. Doctors will not share their patient’s medical information with anyone else (aside from the medical professionals involved in their care) unless they are given permission to do so by the patient.
  • Patients are often worried about the financial aspects of care. How much will surgery and/or treatment cost? What does insurance pay? What happens if I have no money or can’t afford my care? If you are concerned about your finances and need help, social workers, patient navigators, and the hospital’s business office can provide assistance.

These are some of the customs that are common in the United States, however they may be in conflict with a patient’s personal beliefs or the culture of their home country. Most doctors and hospitals are willing to accommodate people’s wishes whenever possible, so patients are encouraged to state their wishes.

Below are links to translations (more are being added):

Cancer Care in the United States: Common practices and customs

Traditional Chinese


Kanker Zorg in de Verenigde Staten: Algemene Gebruiken en Verwachtingen

Traitement du Cancer aux États-Unis: Pratiques Communes et Attentes

Trattamento del Cancro negli Stati Uniti: Pratiche Comuni e Aspettative


미국에서의 암 치료: 통례와 예상

Лечение раковых больных в Америке: Практика и ожидания

Cuidados para pacientes con cáncer en Estados Unidos: Prácticas comunes y expectativas

การปฎิบัติโดยทั่วไป และขอควรปฎิบัติในการบำบัดโรคมะเร็งในประเทศสหรัฐอเมริกา

Local partnership pioneers translating cultural norms for cancer patients (Ithaca Voice)

This collaboration recently received a Town-Gown Award from Cornell University


TIP   Tall with Tag








Town Gown Awards and Recognition Ceremony - Ithaca High School
Representatives of the Cancer Resource Center and Cornell’s Translator Interpreter Program receiving Town-Gown Awards at a recent ceremony

Thank you to the Social Service League of Ithaca for providing the initial funding that made this project possible.