Breast cancer patients tend to be a well informed bunch, who turn up to medical appointments with print outs and well considered questions.

However, a recent study in California found that only a small minority of breast cancer patients understood all the key aspects of their tumours.

The stage, grade and sensitivity of your tumour determines the type of treatment you will have. Whilst thorough patient education would not necessarily change the outcome of the treatment in a direct way, it is likely to improve the patient’s experience of that treatment as well as her ability to stick with it.

All of this key information is available soon after you have your first surgery. Staging indicates the spread of the tumour – how big it has grown as a single clump of cells, and/or how much it has been able to travel to other areas.

Sensitivity to Oestrogen (Estrogen in America), to Progesterone and to Epithelial Growth Hormone or HER-2 is a key element of treatment because if cancer cells need these hormones for “fuel” then by blocking the hormones the growth of the cancer cell will also be blocked.

Grading refers to the general aggressiveness of a tumour. If it’s made up of cells that are fairly similar to the healthy cells around it, but different to cells in other body organs, that is a low grade, less aggressive cancer. Cells that are more abnormal – more dedicated to being a cancer cell than to the function of the tissue they’re in – are higher grade and more aggressive.

Knowing more about your cancer enables you to feel “part of the team” and to take more responsibility for your treatment, as well as to know what questions you want to ask (or not ask).

This will ease your stress – you’ll feel much less helpless – and may help you deal with difficult side effects of the treatment such as hormone changes or chemo side effects.

For most people today, the idea that “doctor knows best” is no longer enough. We want our doctors to be experts but we want to be knowledgeable as well! For doctors, this means that patient education is an important part of the treatment, time consuming as it may be.

Just a treatment is individual – there is no “one size fits all” in breast cancer – so patient education also needs to be individualised. The level of explanation that is helpful for a University professor isn’t likely to be as helpful for a domestic worker, but both women need to be as informed as they can about what’s going on with the cancer and the process of treatment.

There’s good news for doctors here too – patients who understand the basis for their treatment are more likely to be satisfied with the treatment, and to value their relationship with the doctor throughout their journey with cancer.