Understanding the Customs of Cancer Cancer in the U.S.

Being diagnosed with cancer thrusts you into a confusing world with its own language and customs.

It is disorienting even for people who grew up in the United States and are familiar with our health care system.

Imagine if you recently moved to our country. Although you may understand English, you may not be familiar with our customs, especially in terms of how doctors and patients communicate. For example:

  • In the United States, the doctor and patient are partners in care. The doctor makes recommendations, but no treatment will be given without the patient’s consent.
  • Doctors generally speak directly with the patient. Family members may be included, but the patient – not the family – will make the decisions.
  • Doctors will be honest with you. They will tell you about your cancer and explain if it is likely curable, if it requires long term treatment, or if it is potentially life-threatening.
  • You are encouraged to ask questions to your doctor and/or to your nurse if you do not understand something.
  • Controlling pain and nausea is very important and no one wants you to suffer. If you experience pain, nausea, or other problems, you should tell your doctor or nurse so that they can make you more comfortable.
  • Even if you begin treatment, you have the right to change your mind at any point.
  • Medical information is kept confidential. Doctors will not share your medical information with anyone else (aside from the medical professionals involved in your care) unless you give them permission to do so.
  • You will be asked to sign forms quite often. These forms are needed to begin treatment, to share information, to participate in a research study, and for other reasons.
  • Nearly everyone is confused by hospital bills and worried about how those bills will be paid. Social workers and other people in the hospital can help, but they will not know you need help unless you ask for it.

Reprinted with permission of the Ithaca Journal.
Original publication date: Feb. 27, 2016

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