Finding An Oncologist For Your Cancer Care with Drs. Shelby Terstriep and Jyoti Patel

Last Updated: August 4, 2017

Watch this patient education video to learn more about types of oncologists, sources to help find an oncologist, what to consider at your first appointment, and more with Drs. Shelby Terstriep and Jyoti Patel.

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Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

Finding an Oncologist for Your Cancer Care

Types of Oncologists

Shelby Terstriep, MD; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: There are many different types of oncologists that may be part of your care.  First of all, there’s medical oncologists that typically deal with the chemotherapy or pills that can help to target your cancer.  There are surgical oncologists that are the ones performing the surgeries for different types of cancer.  There are radiation oncologists as well who help to perform the radiation.  There are pediatric oncologists that typically take care of kids with cancer.  And finally, there are gynecology oncologists who help to treat cancers of the female organs.

Sources for Finding an Oncologist

Jyoti D. Patel, MD; Member, American Society of Clinical Oncology: Finding an oncologist can be a little bit overwhelming. 

Primary sources for finding the right doctor would be your personal physician, maybe friends and families who have dealt with cancer in the past, or physicians within your hospital's network.

What to Consider at Your First Appointment

Dr. Terstriep: I think it’s always a fair question when you are first meeting with your oncology team to ask them their experience with different types of cancer, or the types of cancer that you have.  And particularly if you have a rare cancer, it’s important to find somebody who at least has some background in that type of cancer, or has a collaboration with a larger institution that have more background in that type of cancer.

Dr. Patel: When you meet an oncologist, you want to make sure that a physician is board certified in their specialty, and you want to make sure that they are involved in continuing medical education so they're up to date on all of these advancements in cancer medicine.

Dr. Terstriep: I think when you meet with your oncologist, you really want to feel like there’s a collaboration with your care.  You want to feel heard.  Your interests and what’s important to you needs to be understood by whoever’s taking care of you, and I think that’s a collaboration between what they know with the science and what you know with your body, and we call that shared decision making.  And so, I think when you find the right oncologist, you can feel that type of shared decision making. 

Dr. Patel: It's important that you also feel comfortable with them and have some sort of personal connection.  A relationship with an oncologist is hopefully one that is long and fruitful, and often requires a lot of complex decision making.

Often, decisions in cancer care are difficult to make.  It requires dialogue between a patient and a physician, and that dialogue has to be honest.  Sometimes there's not a clear answer.  Sometimes therapies can come with risks or side effects, and deciding sort of what your personal desires are and being able to communicate them to a physician who's willing to listen and guide you in the right direction is important for your entire cancer journey.

So when looking for an oncologist, you need to have a physician that's relatable.  You need to be able to talk to them and explain to them what your fears and desires are. 

Access to Multidisciplinary Care

Dr. Terstriep: I think it may be surprising when you first get diagnosed with cancer how many people are involved in your care.  There’s often several different types of oncologists involved as well as support staff that may be involved, like social workers, psychologists, dieticians, and we call that multidisciplinary care.  And I think the goal of multidisciplinary care is really to provide the best treatment possible, to provide the best cure rate or outcomes, and then also to provide the best quality of life for you.  And so, I think it’s really important that you kind of establish a good team for your cancer care.

Dr. Patel: Cancer affects an entire body.  It's not organ specific.  It may have started in one place, but cancer care treats the entire body, treats the entire patient.  It may be that a surgeon removes a tumor.  An oncologist may prescribe certain medicine to decrease the chance that that tumor could come back. A radiation oncologist may prescribe radiation.  All of these people together make up a cancer team, but it's even bigger than that.

It could include medical specialists, which is the gastroenterologist or a pulmonologist, who may have expertise in a particular organ system, and that will work with your oncologist and your surgical oncologist to develop your best outcome.

That multidisciplinary team also includes specialized nurses, like nurse practitioners or physician assistants, who have expertise in treating cancer patients.  It may include physical therapists.  It may include social workers and nutritionists.  But really, this is your cancer team.

And when you're looking for an oncologist, you want to make sure that you're in a place in which you have access to all of these services for your best outcome.

Seeking a Second Opinion

Dr. Patel: So when someone is given a cancer diagnosis, generally they want to learn all they can about their cancer diagnosis and develop the best treatment strategy to eradicate the cancer and live as long as they can. A second opinion is absolutely reasonable in a patient with cancer. Your life has taken a 180.  You want to make sure that you're on the right track.

Dr. Terstriep: And I think the best way to do that is to work with your primary oncologist to help refer you on to the best institution that may offer a different type of service for you.  I think that collaboration is the best way to do a second opinion.

Dr. Patel: It's important that not only do you have confidence in what your oncologist is telling you and asking you to do, but also that you have confidence within the clinic or the medical system in which you're getting your care.

Where to Get More Information

Dr. Patel: I'd recommend Cancer.Net to anyone starting their cancer journey.  Not only will it help you find a doctor with particular expertise, but it also gives advice on how to go to your first doctor's appointment, what questions to ask, and who to take with you.

[Closing and Credits]

Cancer.Net®: Doctor-Approved Patient Information from ASCO®

ASCO's patient education programs are supported by Conquer Cancer Foundation of the American Society of Clinical Oncology. ConquerCancerFoundation.org  

Special Thanks:

Dr. Mary Wilkinson, Dr. Raymund Cuevo, and the staff at Medical Oncology & Hematology Associates of Northern Virginia

Carolyn B. Hendricks, MD, The Cancer for Breast Health

Hasbro Children’s Hospital

Helen F. Graham Cancer Center at Christiana Care Health System

The Adele R. Decof Comprehensive Cancer Center at The Miriam Hospital. The Miriam Hospital is a teaching hospital of The Warren Alpert Medical School of Brown University

Video Footage and photography courtesy of:

St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital Biomedical Communications

Moffitt Cancer Center

University Hospitals Case Medical Center Seidman Cancer Center

The opinions expressed in the video do not necessarily reflect the views of ASCO or the Conquer Cancer Foundation.

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