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Your cancer diagnosis: Do you need a second opinion?

Cancer is a serious disease, and you should feel confident in your diagnosis and comfortable with your treatment plan. If you have doubts about either, talking to another doctor can help give you peace of mind. Getting a second opinion can help confirm the opinion of your first doctor, or provide guidance on other treatment options.

Collaborative Cancer Care

Cancer care often involves a group or collaborative approach. It is possible that your doctor may have already discussed your case with other doctors. This is often the case if your doctor is considering surgery or radiation therapy as possible treatments for your cancer. Sometimes, you may meet with these different specialty doctors yourself.

Some cancer centers often arrange a group consult where patients meet with the different doctors that may be involved in their care.

Many hospitals and cancer centers have committees called a tumor board. During these meetings, cancer doctors, surgeons, radiation therapy doctors, nurses, and others discuss cancer cases and their treatment. This is a good way for your doctor to get further information about how to treat your cancer.

Should You Get a Second Opinion?

You should not worry about asking your doctor for a second opinion. It is your right as a patient to have one. Doctors are usually happy to help patients arrange a second opinion. Your doctor may even recommend it when the best treatment approach for your cancer is not clear.

You should seriously think about getting a second opinion if:

  • You have been diagnosed with a rare type of cancer.
  • Your doctor does not have a lot of experience treating your type of cancer.
  • You have several options for treatment and feel unsure what to do.
  • Your test results are unclear for the type and location of your cancer.
  • You are not comfortable with your diagnosis or treatment plan.
  • Your doctor says there is no treatment that can save your life.

You can get a second opinion even if you already had treatment. A second doctor can make recommendations for how your treatment will progress.

How to Get a Second Opinion

Start by telling your doctor you wish to have a second opinion. Ask if they can give you a list of doctors for you to contact. Other ways to find doctors for a second opinion include:

  • Ask another doctor that you trust to give you a list of doctors.
  • Ask friends or family who have been treated for cancer if there is a doctor they would recommend.
  • Review online resources that can help you find a doctor.

The new doctor will meet with you and perform a physical exam. They will also review your medical history and test results. When you meet with the second doctor:

  • Bring copies of your medical records if you have not already sent them.
  • Bring a list of all medicines that you currently take. This includes any vitamins and supplements.
  • Discuss with the doctor the diagnosis and treatment your first doctor recommended.
  • Bring a list of any questions you have. DO NOT be afraid to ask them - that's what the appointment is for.
  • Consider bringing along a family member or friend for support. They should feel free to ask questions too.

What if the Second Opinion Disagrees with the First?

Chances are good that the second opinion will be similar to that of your first doctor. If that is the case, you can feel more confident in your diagnosis and treatment plan.

However, the second doctor may have different ideas about your diagnosis or treatment. If that happens, DO NOT worry -- you still have choices. You could go back to your first doctor and discuss the second opinion. You may decide together to change your treatment based on this new information. You can also seek the opinion of a third doctor. This could help you decide which of the first two options is better for you.

Keep in mind that even if you get a second or third opinion, you do not have to switch doctors. You get to decide which doctor will provide your treatment.

References

Meyer AN, Singh H, Graber ML. Evaluation of outcomes from a national patient-initiated second-opinion program. Am J Med. 2015;128(10):1138.e25-33. PMID: 25913850 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25913850.

Mordechai O, Tamir S, Weyl-Ben-Arush M. Seeking a second opinion in pediatric oncology. Pediatr Hematol Oncol. 2015;32(4):284-289. PMID: 25551199 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25551199.

Moumjid N, Gafni A, Bremond A, Carrere MO. Seeking a second opinion: do patients need a second opinion when practice guidelines exist? Health Policy. 2007;80(1):43-50. PMID: 16584804 www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/16584804.

Review Date 10/13/2014

Updated by: Christine Zhang, MD, Medical Oncologist, Fresno, CA. Review provided by VeriMed Healthcare Network. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.

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