We get it. Going to the doctor is uncomfortable, and questioning the doctor is just plain intimidating. However, when it comes to cancer, speaking at length with your doctor about your diagnosis could actually save your life. Unfortunately, a recent study shows that not enough breast cancer patients are speaking up, and minority patients, especially, are less likely than white patients to have accurate knowledge of their tumors.

What They Say They Know vs. What They Really Know

In a first-of-its-kind study, researchers from the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute surveyed 500 women with breast cancer, asking for the grade, stage, and receptor status of their breast cancer. According to Medical News Today, results showed that 32 to 82 percent said they knew these characteristics of their tumors. However, when asked, only around between 20 to 58 percent could actually correctly specify them. Unfortunately, there seemed to be racial discrepancies between the women who knew about their personal cancer status and those who did not, with white women seeming to be far more knowledgeable about their particular breast cancer than black and Hispanic women. According to the report, much of the lack of understanding in Hispanic women could be explained by literacy problems caused by a language gap, but these same limitations did not exist for the black women.

According to the lead researcher on the project, Dr. Rachel Freedman, understanding your breast cancer is vital for treating the condition. "Improving patients' understanding about why a particular treatment is important for her individual situation may lead to more informed decisions and better adherence to treatment," Freedman said in a press release.

What Comes After Diagnosis

Fear of questioning your doctor is a widespread problem. The cause of this fear can vary. Some are in denial and do not want to learn more about their condition because they have not yet accepted the fact that they are sick. Others feel intimidated by their doctors, and as shown in a 2012 study, are afraid to be labelled “difficult” if they dare to ask questions.

“I don’t want him to think I’m questioning his judgment. I don’t want to upset him or make him angry at me!” explained one respondent who had taken part in the study, as reported by The New York Times blog.

Changing the patient/doctor relationship involves work on both sides. While it’s important for doctors to create a safe and comfortable environment in the examination room, it’s equally important for patients to take the initiative to ask questions. Dr. Jennifer Shu a pediatrician who writes for CNN explained that it’s best to bring a checklist of questions to your doctor’s appointment to help you remember questions you need to ask.

“If you have any remaining questions or concerns after the visit, be sure to follow up with a phone call to the doctor or nurse or make another appointment if necessary,” she said.

While great strides have been made in breast cancer diagnosis and treatment, in reality it is still the second leading cause in cancer death among American women. It’s hoped that the facts raised by this study will help breast cancer patients re-evaluate the power of their own voice and be more inclined to speak up in the examination room, because at the end of the day doctors and patients have the same goal: beat cancer.

Source: Freeman RA, Kouri EM, West DW, Keating NL. Racial/ethnic disparities in knowledge about one's breast cancer characteristics. Cancer. 2015.