by Dana Griffen
Receiving a cancer diagnosis is an upsetting experience for the patient, as well as his or her family and friends. Cancer patients are thrust into a new world with new language and new rules. Knowing where to turn and who you can trust is a huge concern.
One of the first things a cancer patient will discover is that he or she will not be treated by only one doctor. Additionally, not all cancer doctors have the same training or specialties. An oncologist is the broad name given to doctors that specialize in cancer treatment. Because there are various forms of cancer treatment, this specialty is further refined into surgical oncology, radiation oncology, and medical oncology. Multiple methods will often be needed to effectively treat the cancer, and a treatment team may include doctors in all three specialties.
For some cancers, there are practitioners who are more specialized and focus on only one form of cancer or one region of the body. For example, there are head and neck oncologists who specialize in cancers of the brain and mouth. There are also doctors who focus on just breast cancer or lymphoma, for instance.
Where to look
You will likely be referred to a specialist by your primary care physician. However, if you are interested in getting additional opinions you may have to find a cancer specialist yourself.
Three of the best resources are the American Medical Association, American College of Surgeons, and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Membership with these organizations indicates a higher level of training and commitment. Also consider contacting your local cancer treatment centers to request information on the doctors that specialize in your particular type of cancer.
The American Cancer Society maintains a website as well as community outreach programs that are available to patients with all forms of cancer. The National Cancer Institute is a governmental organization that provides similar information, and is categorized by type of cancer.
Finding a list of doctors is only half of the battle. You then need to evaluate the specialists to determine if they will be the right fit.
Ask about the doctor’s medical training. What schools did he or she attend? Do they have any recently published journal articles pertaining to the specific cancer that you have been diagnosed with? While not available for all specialties, additional certifications indicate a commitment to the field.
Ask the doctor about his or her specific experience with the type of cancer that you have been diagnosed with. Approximately how many cases do they treat annually? Request mortality statistics for patients treated with similar conditions. While there is no set number of previous cases the doctor should have treated, it is important that you feel confident that the doctor has had successful experiences in the past.
You and your family will likely have numerous questions over the course of treatment. How approachable is the doctor? If he or she is unwilling or reluctant to answer questions in the initial stages, it is not likely that the process will become easier after months of treatment. Find out if there is a help line in case you have concerns after normal business hours.
It may take some time to find specialists who are best suited to you, but it is extremely important to make sure you are comfortable with them and how they plan to treat your cancer. When in doubt, it is completely reasonable to get a second opinion.
Dana Griffen is a freelance health care writer that specializes in cancer research, news and support.
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