How to Choose Breast Cancer Specialists for Your Cancer Care

A team of doctors meets in a conference room.
A team of doctors meets in a conference room. Seb Oliver/Getty Images

How can you find the best specialists to treat your breast cancer - a team that will work with you to give you the best care possible?

When You are Newly Diagnosed

Breast cancer is a complex condition that requires a lot of care. After you receive a diagnosis of breast cancer, you may find that you have gone from needing one or two doctors to needing the input of a whole team of providers. What kinds of doctors will you need to see?

And how do you choose the right specialist?

Your doctor, often in collaboration with colleagues of various specialties, will recommend a course of action that depends on your diagnosis and the extent of your illness. It is up to you to decide what action to take, and who will take it with you.

Core Breast Cancer Specialists

Your hospital or treatment center will most likely pair you with a case manager or patient advocate (usually a registered nurse who specializes in cancer care) to help coordinate your care from diagnosis to recovery. The case manager can help you navigate through the complex system and answer questions about the specialists you may encounter along the way.

These include the core doctors who will be involved in the initial diagnosis and treatment of your cancer: Not all newly diagnosed breast cancer patients will need all of these doctors, but most will require them to review their case at least once.

Note that there are several different types of oncologists, who all play a special role in the treatment of cancer.

  • A radiologist pinpoints where your cancer is by examining medical imaging such as PET or CT scans. The findings of this specialist help determine whether surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or some combination of the three is the best course of action.
  • A pathologist defines what your cancer is by examining tissue and cells under a microscope. The pathologist's findings determine whether a tumor is cancerous and what kind of cancer it is.
  • A surgical oncologist is a surgeon who specializes in cancer treatment, performing surgery to remove tumors such as a lumpectomy, mastectomy, and lymph node surgery.
  • A radiation oncologist treats cancer with radiation therapy, developing a radiation treatment plan and overseeing its delivery.
  • A medical oncologist treats cancer with drugs such as chemotherapy. This doctor determines the right type, dose, frequency and method of delivery to target your cancer without unnecessary side effects.

Depending on the progression of your disease and the type of treatment you receive, you may also seek the following:

  • A pain management specialist (also called an interventional pain specialist), who is often an anesthesiologist with special training, who helps patients manage their pain, usually with medication.
  • A mental healthcare provider can help you sort through the complicated emotions you will deal with as a breast cancer patient. Depending on your needs, this person could be a licensed clinical social worker, a psychiatrist or a family therapist.
  • A plastic/reconstructive surgeon works to reconstruct or restore the appearance of parts of the body, such as a breast that has been removed by mastectomy.
  • Clinical trial investigators are physicians and scientists who manage the use and side effects of medications and surgeries which are still considered "experimental."

Finding the Right People

You may be thinking, "My doctor will send me to whomever I need, so I do not need to think about it."

Not so fast. Would you automatically buy the car your local dealer recommends, or the house your agent raves about? While your doctor may well know just the right person to perform your surgery or plan your radiation treatments, it is worth a bit of research to be sure.

To help patients get the background they need for decisions like this, a number of web sites present objective data on physicians, treatment centers and more, so that users can compare them at a glance. You may wish to receive care or get a second opinion at one of the many National Cancer Institute designated cancer centers.

Talk to your case manager about the specialists at your treatment center. If you feel comfortable asking for recommendations from friends, family, and colleagues, this may also yield valuable, although subjective, information that can help you choose the right person to provide your care.

Where You Might Need to Go

Upon diagnosis, you were probably referred to the nearest hospital or cancer treatment center to start your treatment. But just as you might not be comfortable with the first doctor who comes along, you may find that the nearest facility is not necessarily the best for you. Does it have access to the most up-to-date imaging and other equipment? Does it host breast cancer support groups that you would like to join? Is it connected to a hospital in case you need inpatient care at some point?

By using the National Cancer Institute database, you can search by location and compare the results you find. If you are intrigued by a center that is outside of comfortable driving distance, ask a friend or relative to drive you for regular appointments. Or call the center to see if they are affiliated with a hospitality house that provides low-cost (or free) room and board to out-of-town patients undergoing treatment. As a last resort, look into hotel stays; remember that overnight lodging is deductible as a medical expense on your taxes if it is necessary for treatment.

Being an Active Healthcare Consumer

Whether fighting breast cancer or having a routine checkup, you want to be sure you are trusting the right people. Once you have made a list of providers who fit the bill, there may be more questions to ask. The U.S. Department of Health & Human Services recommends calling the doctors' offices and asking some of these questions:

  • Will I be able to speak to the doctor if I have questions between appointments?
  • Do any other doctors cover for him when he is out? If so, who are they?
  • How far in advance do I need to make an appointment? How long will I usually wait once I am there?

Once you are face-to-face with the doctor or other healthcare provider, a simple conversation can help you both decide whether you are well suited to one another. Some things to remember:

  • Do not hold anything back. Even distant or embarrassing parts of your health history may be important to your current treatment.
  • Ask questions. Write down the questions you have in advance and get clarification on anything you do not understand.
  • Get written information to take home. Whether it is handwritten instructions or a pamphlet on your condition, it will keep you from forgetting important points.
  • Be a team with your doctor. Research your cancer online or in the library, so you can be an active participant in any decisions you make. Studies suggest that people who actively research their cancer and actively participate in treatment decisions may have better outcomes.
  • Remember you have choices. If you are uncomfortable with a physician or cancer center, it is never too late to make a change or get a second opinion. Similarly, it's never too late to advocate for yourself as a cancer patient.

It may seem time-consuming, but a little investigation is the best way to find a provider you feel confident about and comfortable with.


National Cancer Institute. How to Find a Doctor or Treatment Facility if You Have Cancer. Updated 06/05/13.

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