Written by Bridget Shirvell
Reviewed for Medical Accuracy by Torie Croog
Simply put, being diagnosed with cancer is overwhelming. You're shocked, anxious, and dazed. And if you're anything like me, your first instinct is to start treatment as quickly as possible. You want to get on with it.
I get it. But take a breath—several, perhaps—and stop Googling. Cancer is a marathon, not a sprint.
In most cases, after asking the physician that diagnosed you for their suggested timeline, you can take the time between your diagnosis and when you need to start treatment to think about your options, ask for a second (or even third!) opinion, and most importantly, find a doctor you trust.
Here's how to get started finding the right oncologist for you.
1. Consult your health insurance
You might as well get the necessities out of the way. Most people will need to choose an oncologist covered by their health insurance plan - so pull up your policy and review your coverage.
Most insurance companies have a section on their website where you can search for doctors that will accept your insurance. Even if it’s listed on the site, always double-check that your insurance is accepted when making an appointment with a new physician.
2. Choose an expert
It’s vitally important to find a treatment center and care team that are experts in their field while also being a good match for your personality. A 2015 study found that people who received care at a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer center had better cancer outcomes than those who did not undergo cancer treatment at NCI-designated centers.
If a cancer center is NCI Designated, it means that the organization has met certain cancer prevention standards, clinical services, and/or research. There are more than 70 of these centers throughout the U.S. You can find a list of NCI-designated cancer centers here.
If there is such a center near you, look through their website or call them to learn about the resident physicians treating your type of cancer—and yes, double-check that your health insurance covers them. If you don't live anywhere near an NCI center and traveling isn't an option that makes sense for you, it’s still worth reviewing the physicians treating your type of cancer at the nearest NCI center. You can make a request that your local oncologist consults with them.
3. Ask around
When it comes to finding a doctor you trust, word of mouth is your best friend. Ask trusted family members and friends if they have anyone to recommend and ask your own doctors.
My gastroenterologist discovered my neuroendocrine cancer during a routine colonoscopy (don't put those things off). By the time I met with him to go over what I had thought would be a regular report, he already had the names of a neuroendocrine specialist and a surgeon for me to follow up with. I appreciated having those names during an overwhelming time, but I also reached out to my primary doctor to ask for her recommendations. It's also a good idea to ask the nurses at your doctor's offices. Nurses tend to be more willing to speak to a doctor's personality and bedside manner, rather than just their skill set.
"I actually asked the chemo nurse team which doctor they would choose if they were going through treatment,” said breast cancer survivor Sally Wolf, who switched oncologists after she completed chemotherapy back in 2016. “They all named the same two doctors, and one of them immediately became mine.”
4. Ask for a consultation
While everyone's cancer is different, if you have the time to meet with multiple providers, take it.
"I hadn't felt the right fit with my initial oncologist—who was no doubt brilliant, just not the right doctor for me," said Wolf, adding that finding a doctor that was a great match for her both rationally and emotionally meant everything to her while navigating her cancer journey.
During your consultation visits, try to pay attention to every detail. Do you like the office staff? You’ll be spending a lot of time on the phone with them. Do the nurses make you feel comfortable? Odds are, you’ll be around them a lot. How do you feel about the doctor’s personality? During the visit, take the time to ask questions about the doctor’s experience treating your type of cancer, their professional credentials, whether or not they participate in clinical trials, their success rates for the treatment they are recommending, and what options you have if the first treatment doesn't work. You’ll not only get valuable practical information—you’ll also be able to get a feel for the doctor as a person.
In addition to talking with your doctor, you can consider seeking out a health advisor. Taking this step can help connect you with other specialists.
5. Read the reviews
Whether you're deciding what black-out curtains to buy or what book to read, online reviews are complicated. While you shouldn’t necessarily choose a doctor based solely on their online reviews, they are worth reading.
Personally, I don't read a doctor’s reviews until after I've actually met them. That way, my perception of the doctor isn't clouded by what I've read, but I do sometimes find them helpful in allowing me to trust my gut about the doctor.
Of course, if you're having a hard time deciding between multiple doctors, reading the reviews before meeting with them could help you narrow down who to make an appointment with. Healthgrades.com and ZocDoc are two sites for medical reviews you can utilize.
6. Trust your gut
Finally, you can’t find a doctor you trust if you don’t trust yourself. A doctor may seem great on paper, but if there’s something about them that you just don’t like, listen to that voice. It’s a long journey, and you need to pick the right team for you and your needs.