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Dealing With Cancer: How to Choose Your Doctors

The Washington area boasts more high-ranking cancer hospitals and specialists than most metropolitan areas. Here’s how to choose your medical team.

Ask for recommendations.

If you know people who have been diagnosed with the same type of cancer, don’t hesitate to ask their opinions of their doctors. “On my drive home from my mammogram, I started calling friends who had recently undergone treatment for breast cancer and started compiling a list,” says survivor Tina Pruitt. Also ask your primary-care physician or a medical professional whose opinion you trust.

Call your health-insurance company.

Your choice of doctors may be limited to those who participate in your plan.

Use clinical societies as a guide.

The American Society of Clinical Oncology provides a list of members at cancer.net that’s searchable by name, affiliation, institution, location, specialty, and board certification. The American College of Surgeons offers a similar database at facs.org.

Ask key questions of a prospective physician.

How many people with my form of cancer have you treated? What were the outcomes—positive and negative? Why are you recommending this course of action? Are there alternatives? Will you coordinate my complete care or address one aspect of it?

Seek a second opinion.

Most physicians expect you to do so. You’ll feel more confident proceeding with treatment that’s approved by more than one specialist. Don’t be afraid to ask for your records, which you’ll need for other consultations.

Decide whether you want a one-stop cancer center or individual physicians.

The most important question may be whether to choose a hospital and have all your treatments under one roof or to select an oncologist, surgeon, and radiologist from different facilities. Choosing each member of your team provides a sense of control, and once you decide on the first physician (such as the oncologist), he or she will likely refer you to other specialists. But the tradeoff is the often difficult task of managing communication among doctors across different hospital systems.

“I had 11 physicians, and I was the sole conveyer of information,” says cancer survivor Jessie Gruman. “I was the one who judged who should get what test results. It’s hard because at the same time you’re sick, you have the burden of coordinating communication.”

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