How to Choose a Cancer Doctor | Cancer Champions

cancer doctor

Physicians often find cancer during a routine, preventative testing procedure. Other times, diagnostic testing for something non-cancer related reveals a tumor. When that happens, a referral to a cancer doctor is usually made on your behalf. 

Patients leave the emergency room or radiology office with a card and follow-up instructions. However, many don’t realize there is a choice in who you see and follow up with. In other words, you don’t have to see the person provided on the card – although they may be a good place to start. 

Today’s article reveals the most common kinds of cancer doctors. Keep reading to discover how to choose the best cancer doctor(s) for you. 

What Are The Different  Kinds of Cancer Doctors? 

Cancer doctors are physicians with special training in cancer treatment. Because cancer is treated via medicine, radiation, and surgery, cancer doctors specialize in each of these disciplines.

The type of cancer doctor you need depends on where and what kind of cancer you have. Typically, a person sees 2 or 3 cancer doctors during their treatment.  

Who Are Cancer Doctors?   

The most common types of cancer doctors are:

  • Medical oncologist – a cancer doctor who gives medicine 
  • Radiation oncologist – a cancer doctor who uses radiation 
  • Surgical oncologist – a cancer doctor who performs surgery 
  • Dermatologic oncologist – a cancer doctor who treats skin cancer 

Which Cancer Doctor Is for Me?

Cancer care often combines medicine, surgery, and radiation. In those instances, you need a medical oncologist to provide the medications, a surgical oncologist to perform the surgery, and a radiation oncologist to provide the radiation treatments. 

While not every cancer requires all three treatments, it’s common for people to need at least two. Also, keep in mind that your cancer and treatment type determine who your main cancer doctor will be.  

For example, if your treatment plan requires surgery followed by medicine (chemotherapy), you see a surgical oncologist and a medical oncologist. In this instance, the surgeon is the main cancer doctor during your surgery. Once you begin chemotherapy, the medical oncologist becomes the main cancer doctor. 

 How Do I Find a Cancer Doctor? 

What happens if you are told to “follow up with a cancer doctor,” a medical oncologist, surgeon, or radiation oncologist – and you haven’t been given a specific person to follow up with?  How do you find a cancer doctor?  

Before you start looking for a cancer doctor, think about the qualities you want your doctor to have.  Here are some things to think about: 

  • Do they accept your insurance?
  • Does he/she have experience with your type of cancer?
  • Are they willing to assist with my health and emotional needs?
  • Do they have privileges at the hospital/ cancer center you are most comfortable with?

When looking for a cancer doctor, we recommend asking your primary care physician, family doctor, or the physician who found the cancer.  Additionally, it’s a good idea to call your health insurance company and ask for an advocate to help you identify cancer doctors in your network. Your family and friends may also be a good resource for identifying local doctors.  

Where Do You Find a Cancer Doctor?

  • Cancer centers
  • University hospitals
  • Community hospitals
  • Local physician offices

Some hospitals and cancer centers offer physician referral services available by phone or online where you can learn more about the doctors in your area. Generally, people find these services by calling the cancer center or hospital’s main number or visiting their websites.  

What to Do Once You Have Identified a Cancer Doctor? 

Once you’ve found a doctor that seems like a good fit for you, call their office and ask if they’re taking new patients. Also, find out if they accept your insurance. 

If the insurance company allows it — and the physician’s office is willing — set up an appointment to get to know the doctor before becoming a patient. Explain that you are seeking a cancer doctor and that you’re interested in scheduling a short meet-and-greet. 

If these visits aren’t covered by your insurance or offered by the doctor, ask some questions on the phone prior to your appointment. Then, ask any remaining questions during your first appointment. If you aren’t satisfied with the answers, seek an appointment with another doctor.

Questions for a potential doctor?  

  • What are the office hours?
  • Is the doctor board certified? 
  • Who sees you when they’re away?
  • Who else is on your cancer care team?
  • What is their experience? And the length of your practice? 
  • How many people with your type of cancer have they treated?
  • How do you get help after hours, on weekends, or on holidays?
  • Is their practice involved in medical research of new treatments?
  • If seeking a surgical oncologist, ask how many procedures like yours the doctor has performed.

It’s essential to verify the doctor’s medical experience and credentials. Additionally, it’s just as crucial for you to evaluate how comfortable you feel with them and their staff. You spend quite a bit of time with the medical team throughout your treatment and follow-up (and beyond to survivorship), so you need to be very comfortable with the team. 

Questions to Ask Yourself When Evaluating a Cancer Doctor 

  • Was the doctor listening to you?
  • Do you feel the doctor respected you?
  • Were you asked about your preferences? 
  • Was there a chance for you to ask questions? 
  • Do you feel like the doctor spent enough time with you? 
  • Were they comfortable answering your questions?
  • Did you understand what the doctor was saying to you? 

Resources to Help You

American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) provides a free, searchable database of ASCO member oncologists worldwide.

Other medical associations also offer searchable databases:

If this task seems too intimidating and you don’t know where to begin, seek the expertise of a professional health consultant.  Dana offers a complimentary call (free!) where she listens to your story and offers ways to help your unique circumstances. 

Additionally, we offer an educational resource designed to help flatten your learning curve as you navigate the complex and unfamiliar nuances of a cancer diagnosis. This DIY Guide to Navigating a Cancer Diagnosis contains a series of short videos, downloadable worksheets, and weekly live 1:1 Q&A with Dana.  

Cancer is common. However, every person’s experience is unique.  We are here to help