Photo by Kristen S. Gorman

As I was working on this issue of Cancer Today, I was struck—as I am frequently—by the vast amount of new information available every week about cancer research and care. One of the great rewards of working on this magazine is knowing that I am guiding you to information that can help you become a better advocate for yourself or your loved one, in ways that would have mattered greatly to my own family.

Twenty years ago, when my parents sought to learn about my mother’s colorectal cancer diagnosis and options, there was no Cancer Today, there were few patient support organizations, and there was no Google. Instead, they made a lot of phone calls. Now, you can turn to the internet, which has dramatically changed how we seek and find information. That’s why we include boxes chock-full of websites in each issue of Cancer Today, providing you with reliable online destinations for even more cancer-related resources. The internet also, as we report in this issue, has made it possible for patients to share their experiences in online support groups, breaking down the isolation that all too often has been part of the cancer experience.

With access to so much information, most cancer patients now walk into a doctor’s appointment better prepared—and with more questions—than ever. Doctors, in turn, have been increasingly learning how cancer is affecting their patients’ lives, and are including them as informed partners in their care. In fact, at hospitals around the nation, young doctors are being given direction on how to better communicate with their patients, especially when they need to deliver bad news.

In New York City, breast cancer survivor Lee Miller leads one such program for the patient support organization SHARE, bringing cancer survivors into teaching hospitals to help physicians understand what it’s like to be a patient. Elsewhere in this issue, bioethicist Myra Christopher makes it clear that a patient should settle for nothing less than a physician who makes her comfortable and will be honest about her prognosis. (She found that doctor in her gynecologic oncologist, Michelle Dudzinski.)

Research findings suggest that effective communication between doctor and patient can improve a patient’s quality of life, and that it is imperative for a terminal patient. “It is really important that patients feel their doctors respect them and see them as a whole person,” says Holly Prigerson, a psycho-oncologist at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston.

Beyond helping your doctor get to know you as a patient and a person, you may also benefit from the patient navigators that many hospitals and patient support organizations now employ. A navigator’s role is to identify the challenges you face and then help you negotiate the medical system to get the best care. As we report, in one recent study, navigators helped decrease the time in which patients obtained treatment or had their symptoms resolved.

This twofold effort—patients taking a proactive role in learning about their disease and care, and health care practitioners learning about the patient’s experience, needs and wants—is at the heart of the patient-physician partnership that is shaping cancer care. It is powerful to be telling this evolving story through Cancer Today.