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Choosing Your Breast Cancer Specialist and Treatment Plan

When you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, a number of questions and emotions will flood your mind. You probably never imagined that this would happen to you and you may not believe it initially. Once it has set in, however, you may feel scared or even angry. What you want to avoid is to allow your emotions and fears to stand in the way of getting treatment or influence your treatment decisions. These decisions should be made rationally as they will affect the rest of your life. The next step in your treatment plan after accepting the diagnosis is to find the doctor and treatment facility that is best for you.

The kinds of doctors that treat breast cancer in particular are medical oncologists, surgical oncologists and radiation oncologists. Perhaps your family doctor or your OB/GYN will have some recommendations of doctors for you to see that they trust, and can refer you to them. If you trust the referring physician, then you will probably feel comfortable trusting his or her referral. If you prefer to find your own doctor or trust referrals from other sources, that is perfectly fine.

If you did not receive a referral at diagnosis, or if you are not sure that you trust the referral that you were given, you should definitely conduct your own search or even do research on the ones that were given to you. You can begin this search by asking people you know if they are aware of any of any doctors in the area that have treated their loved ones. If possible, talk to current breast cancer patients or breast cancer survivors who live in your area for their input about oncologists and treatment facilities.

Finding the Right Doctor

It is natural to panic and immediately want to seek treatment from the first referred doctor that is available without really investigating whether the referrals are the best choice for you. All you know is that you have cancer and you are in a hurry to be treated. You should see a doctor as soon as possible, since beginning the treatment process can take some time. However, you should not rush to see a doctor that you are not convinced is best for you.

Another source of information is the internet, where you can find doctor’s names, specialties, locations and sometimes even reviews. Some people prefer the internet for this kind of information because they believe it is not biased by the referring doctor’s preferences.1 There are also two national organizations that provide information for breast cancer patients regarding specialists and facilities in their area.

  1. The National Cancer Institute can provide information about a facility that offers comprehensive breast cancer care nearest you. You can reach them by calling 1-800-4CANCER or visit their website at cancer.gov.
  1. The American Society of Clinical Oncology has a website dedicated to helping cancer patients locate oncologists in their area.

There are some questions you should have answered prior to selecting your team of breast cancer treatment specialists. These questions include, but are not limited to the following:

  • What is their experience in treating breast cancer?
  • Are they board certified in their field?
  • Are they up-to-date on available treatment options for breast cancer?
  • Will your insurance be accepted by the doctors and the facility where they send you for treatment?
  • Where will treatments be given?
  • Will there be an oncology nurse or social worker available to help you with social, financial and emotional matters?
  • Are there other support systems that they use as well? If so, what are they?
  • How easy will it be to contact the physician or their nurses if you need to?  Will you be able to contact them via email and/or telephone?
  • Will they give you information concerning a second opinion?

Deciding on a Treatment

Once you have decided who will be giving you your treatments and where, it is time to decide what, when and how. Your oncologist will likely offer you more than one treatment option and making the decision may seem overwhelming at first. Remember that you do not need to make a decision immediately, in fact, it is best if you have a separate appointment to determine which treatment option you will select. Different treatment regimens will have different impacts on your life. For example, if you work, your treatment choice may be influenced by your ability to continue working during treatment.

The Ultimate Goal

Make sure you have that conversation about the ultimate goal, which is survival. Your oncologist will present you with information about the stage of your breast cancer, your overall health, resources that are available to you and will then give you an array of statistics concerning survival and recurrence for each type of treatment.

It may be exhausting and overwhelming for you to go through these appointments with your doctor, so much so that you would never even contemplate doing it all again. But a second opinion may be worth it if you are still unsure about your decision. Ask your oncologist if he or she would recommend another specialist in your area, so that you can make the best decision for your care. If they seem insulted that you want a second opinion, you should probably consider seeing another doctor instead. A physician should always have your best interest in mind and support your decision regardless of how it affects them.

It is a great idea to have someone with you at your appointments, for no other reason than to take notes about what is being discussed. Furthermore, you should discuss with this person what their role is at the visit before you meet with the doctor. If you want this person to sit quietly, take notes, and simply be present in the room with you, make that clear. However, if you would rather this person play a more active role, asking questions or reminding you of questions you had, then make that clear as well. Remember, the ultimate goal is survival. Your team of doctors want to make the journey as easy as possible for you.

References

1 Tustin, Nupur, (January 2010) The Role of Patient Satisfaction in Online Health Information Seeking. Journal of Health Communication. v 15:1, 3-17.

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.