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The conversation about cancer everyone should have

Taking control of your own cancer journey



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Frans van Houten, CEO of Philips, recently said, "Health is an investment in the future of the world, in people's happiness and productivity." This quote represents Philips’ ambition in transforming and improving healthcare.


For World Cancer Day, Philips asked me, a science journalist, to do a little research and to compile five main questions to ask if you – with no forewarning – unfortunately and suddenly find yourself in a conversation with your doctor and you hear the word “cancer.”


It’s important to take these questions into consideration when you are healthy, too, because everyone can become a 'patient,' caught in the cogs and gears of the medical world. It is important to ask the right questions at that moment, as those first conversations will have a huge impact on how your body is treated. This moment is irreversible – crucial for the future of your well-being and your life. The medical team is ready to treat you, and your voice matters to everyone involved.


Below you’ll find two lists of questions: one made by former patients, and one made by a medical oncologist. The lists are not to show that these are the ‘best’ questions, or the ‘only’ questions that should be discussed. There is no objective truth; these questions serve as support and a place to start.


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Questions compiled by cancer survivors:

  1. What is my prognosis with and without treatment?
  2. Can I get everything you advise me written down on paper?
  3. How do I know that you are the best doctor for me?
  4. How will you ensure that you will provide the best care for me?
  5. Are there scientific publications that address my treatment?


Questions compiled by medical oncologists:

  1. Can the cancer be cured? In other words: is it possible to remove the tumor? If not, what is the prognosis?
  2. Can a so-called ‘systemic therapy’ (chemotherapy and/or targeted therapy) be applied, and which therapy would then be best for me?
  3. Is this the right hospital for me, or am I better off at another hospital or with another specialist?
  4. What type of treatment will I receive? What are the advantages and disadvantages regarding the side effects, and how taxing will it be on my personal life e.g., with respect to going to the hospital for checkups?
  5. Are there any ongoing studies I can participate in?


Doctors and former patients view treatment statistics differently. As much as patients may be keen to know about treatment statistics, doctors recommend looking at them in a different light as statistics may be useful for many things, but they do not represent each individual. The results in thousands of patients give a rough idea, but for every individual cancer patient, treatment results can vary, from 0 to 100%. That’s why it’s important to ask specific questions that pertain to your individual treatment.


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Cancer survivor Jacqueline Lifmann, age 51, agrees with the importance of good communication when you are being treated for cancer because that’s the main driver for optimal cancer care. Jacqueline was treated successfully for breast cancer in 2014. She emphasizes that, when you go for an appointment with your doctor, you have to stay in control:


“Record every conversation and always take someone with you when you have an appointment. As a patient, you are shaped in statistics, and the doctors simply have to follow the protocols. I personally found a combination of mainstream and alternative treatment very effective. But in the regular hospital, I felt like a child who has to stand between her two quarrelling, divorced parents.”


The need for each patient to take control of his or her own cancer journey is paramount. What’s right for one person may not be correct for another. An extreme example comes from Alex Mons, a commander of the Navy. Alex, age 50, is the father of Stephan, who was diagnosed with a rare form of nasopharynx cancer at the age of 21 and whose cancer has unfortunately recurred after six years.


Despite having an aggressive cancer, Stephan’s father considers his son as resilient and a fighter:


"Before my son was treated, he asked his doctor if he could fly to the Navy base in Curaçao and sail back on his ship with his colleagues. The treatment was finished in November, and Stephan wanted to fly in December. He was still very ill and the doctor advised against it. But he insisted and he received permission to take his trip under strict medical guidance. In December, he flew to Curaçao, stepped aboard the ship and, despite being hospitalized during a heavy storm, he arrived safely home in the Netherlands. It was a very special experience for the crew and particularly for Stephan, helping him to regain his fighting spirit. The trip helped him to recover that desire to fight, and it certainly helped that his fiancée was on board as well!”


Returning to that quote from Frans van Houten on the need to be an innovator in healthcare, even for a company like Philips – with 125 years’ experience in technological innovation and research – it is vital to remember that there is always a human side to the story. In spite of the protocols and the techniques, cancer can happen to anyone.


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Oncology is just as diverse and complex as the human body, and we’re all helping each other, whether you are a former patient, a father, a young man, a healthcare professional or working at a company like Philips. We’re all collaborating by trying to do the right things, by helping each other in different societies and worldwide – for me, that’s its own kind of victory.

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Kelly Nijhof

Freelance Science Journalist for Oncology

Kelly Nijhof is a journalist who’s specialized in oncology. She has 15 years of experience as an analyst at the department of pathology. Currently she is working on a White Paper for Philips about the implementation of digital pathology.



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