How to Choose a Cancer Doctor

How to Find the Best Oncologist to Treat Your Cancer

group of 5 doctors
Check out these tips on how to find the best oncologist to treat your cancer.

When you are newly diagnosed with cancer, not only do you need to cope with the shock and grief, but you are called upon to make overwhelming decisions about your medical care. One of the first things you will need to do is choose a cancer doctor (an oncologist,) but how can you best make that decision -- one that may affect your quality of life and even survival? Here are a few things to consider:

Insurance Coverage

Unless you have money to burn, finding an oncologist who is covered under your insurance plan is often a first step in narrowing down your selection. But learning whether or not a physician is covered under your plan is often more than a yes-no question. Your policy may refer to first and second tier providers, in-network an out-of-network providers, and other stipulations. It may help to read through your policy as well as call the customer service number on the back of your insurance card to learn more.

Hospital Affiliations and Other Providers

Oncologists don't usually practice in isolation, but rather as part of a hospital system or cancer center. In addition to your medical oncologist, your cancer team may include surgeons, radiation oncologists, palliative care physicians, physical therapists, and other specialists. As you look for a physician it may be helpful to simultaneously look for a cancer treatment center that will meet your specific needs.


Finding a cancer center close to home is ideal -- especially if you aren't feeling well -- but isn't always possible. You may not have a cancer center nearby, or specific therapies or clinical trials may only be available at a distance. As an example, studies have found that lung cancer patients who have surgery at centers that see a greater number of patients have better outcomes.

How important is it to you to be near home?  How far would you be willing to travel for care? Do you have friends or relatives close to a cancer center that you could stay with?

The Type of Cancer You Have

It’s important to look for a doctor who is interested in your type of cancer. For example a doctor with amazing reviews who treats only breast cancer patients might not be the best choice if you’ve been diagnosed with lung cancer. There are several ways you can learn about the special interests of oncologists.  Your family physician or friends may be of help in this area. The databases below also allow you to look for doctors who treat your type of cancer. Checking out online profiles of oncologists can also be helpful, as many list their special interests. If you have a rare form of cancer, the larger cancer center may be more likely to have oncologists on staff who have treated people with a tumor similar to yours.  

Access to Clinical Trials

Advances in cancer treatment stem from testing new treatments in clinical trials.

Some of these trials look at brand new drugs or procedures, whereas other studies compare treatments currently available to see if one works better than another. A clinical trial may also grant you the opportunity to receive treatments that could be more effective than those currently available for the general public. Studies looking at new treatments may allow you to help others who develop your kind of cancer in the future. Some clinical trials are widely available, whereas others are only available at a few cancer centers. Talk with your doctor about clinical trials that may meet your needs.  If your doctor is not familiar with clinical trials that are available, you can check online databases in the links below or take advantage of the free matching services in which a nurse navigator can match your particular cancer and stage with trials that are available worldwide.

Second Opinions

Even if you find a good fit with the first oncologist you see, getting a second (or third) opinion is a good idea. Some people are concerned that their oncologist will feel offended if they seek a second opinion, but that is not true. In fact, it's often assumed that you will get a second opinion. Even if you are comfortable with the course of treatment laid out by the first doctor you see, having sought out a second opinion can give you confidence down the line that you didn't make a hasty decision about your health.

Resources for Finding a Cancer Doctor

Your primary care doctor may have recommendations regarding an oncologist, or you may have heard of a cancer doctor you are interested in seeing via word-of-mouth. Cancer support groups -- online or in person -- are also ways of finding doctors that treat your type of cancer. If you aren't sure of where to begin, a few databases are available to assist you. The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has a database in which you can search among over 30,000 oncologists based on location as well as type of cancer: The National Cancer Institute (NCI) also has a list of 68 designated cancer centers that are chosen based on their dedication towards research in the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer.

In addition to these databases, there are lists online in which oncologists are ranked by the opinions of patients or insurance companies. It's important to practice caution in interpreting these remarks.  In some cases there are only a few comments -- comments that could be positive regardless of how good the doctor is if a cancer goes into remission, or negative despite an excellent doctor if someone is angry due to a progressing cancer. These rankings may also be misleading in other ways. For example, one of the "criteria" these systems use is whether or not a particular doctor is usually on time. At first glance that sounds like a good thing; none of us like to wait. But consider what this means. Have you ever had to reach your doctor or see her on the same day, or have you ever had concerns that took longer than your alloted appointment time? Keep in mind that a doctor who keeps you waiting because another patient took longer than expected, may be the doctor who takes that extra time with you in the future.

Next Steps

In addition to finding an oncologist and cancer center, what else should you do after being diagnosed? Check out these ideas to help those first days and weeks go smoothly. And remember: We are cancer survivors beginning the day we are diagnosed.


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

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