Choosing a Cancer Doctor: 9 Things to Know

June 29, 2018 1:00 PM

A cancer diagnosis can be unexpected and overwhelming. Use these tips to be informed and proactive in finding your care team.

doctor with white coat sitting with stethoscope around his neck and blue shirt talking with patient with short grey hair and maroon shirt
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This article was updated on January 20, 2021.

One big concern for patients diagnosed with cancer is whether there is time to research treatment centers and get a second opinion before starting treatment.

Unless you are facing urgent symptoms like nausea, vomiting or pain, there is usually time to do some research.

Choosing an oncologist, or cancer doctor, is a big decision. That’s why it’s important to ask lots of questions and to make sure a cancer treatment center is best suited to your needs.

Consider these tips when starting your search:

Ask your primary care doctor for a referral. Your doctor may be familiar with an expert best suited to handle the specifics of your case.

Meet with more than one doctor. It’s helpful to compare treatment recommendations to see if suggestions from one provider are supported by others.

Look for treatment centers with a multidisciplinary approach. This means each patient receives input from many cancer experts. The patient will be helped by specialists that include surgeons, medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, oncology nurses and social workers. All of these experts can work together to determine your best treatment plan.


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Find a National Cancer Institute-designated cancer center. These centers have received recognition for their expertise. They’re also high-volume, with doctors who represent all specialties and who bring distinct expertise to the table when deciding your best treatment approach. NCI maintains a list of its designated cancer centers.

Ask oncologists and surgeons about their credentials and expertise. Cancer care experts expect to receive questions from patients and should not be offended. A patient might say, “My reading has led me to understand it is wise to ask certain questions” when consulting a doctor.

Questions to ask an oncologist:

  • Are you board certified in your specialty?

  • How many patients have you treated with this type of cancer?

  • How many patients with this type of cancer are seen at the center?

  • Is there a team that works together to decide my best choice of treatment?

Questions to ask a surgeon:

  • How many surgeries do you perform each year? It’s important for a surgeon to have at least 15 to 20 per year.

  • What are your complication rates?

  • What is your 30-day operative mortality rate? This is any death that occurred within 30 days after surgery, either in or out of the hospital.

Work with a major cancer center, even if you live far away. Most experts in high-volume centers are willing to work with your local oncologists and physicians. Usually, part of the plan surgery, for example is executed in the center; post-surgery treatment happens locally.

Do your own research (with your physician’s help). It’s great to be proactive and learn about treatment options by turning to the internet and other sources of information. But while some treatments may sound great online, they might not be safe or well-proven. Leave room for your physician to give an overall perspective.

Physicians can provide better context about what’s best for you. They should be able to explain the potential risks and benefits of a treatment as well as the physical, emotional and financial burdens of that option.

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Seek a second opinion if necessary. Whether you’re at a medical crossroads or considering a change in the course of treatment, your doctor should be open to considering options both locally and at other cancer centers. In the end, the decision to change treatment teams or centers is your call and depends on how comfortable you feel with your physician.

Consider a clinical trial. From day one, when the treatment is outlined, ask about clinical trials. These research studies test new ways to treat cancer, and your involvement can help improve treatments and outcomes for future patients.

To speak with an oncology nurse, call the Rogel Cancer Center’s Cancer AnswerLine at 800-865-1125.