Not Accepting the First Cancer Diagnosis

Second opinions with cancer may be best

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

Hearing that you have cancer ranks right up there with the scariest news you'll ever get.

After the stun wears off and the fear starts to fade, it's time to take action -- to take charge of your care.

Learn as much as you can about this thing that has invaded your body. Start reading reputable online information. Find out what's happening and what lies ahead. Make lists of questions.

This knowledge will be your armor as you plan and fight the battle of your life. The process will help you feel more in control. You'll know more so you can be more involved in your care.

You can let your healthcare team know who's ultimately in charge -- you. And you might think it's best for you to get a second opinion.

Because it's not just your body, it's your life.

Now is not the time to be concerned about hurting the feelings of the  professionals who are being paid to deliver the answers and care you need to beat this thing.

By the way, most doctors welcome having a colleague look at test results.

Why get a 2nd opinion?

You may think that you don't have time to waste -- that you have to get this thing out of you as soon as possible.

The fact is, you normally do have time to have someone else take a look and offer you some guidance. What you learn could -- and may well -- change your life. 

Tests need to be ordered to determine the extent of the cancer -- where it is, how big it is, the nature of the tumor(s), genetic mutations involved.

You won't have to repeat these tests -- usually -- you'll just have more than one pair of expert eyes reviewing and interpreting the test results.

Getting other specialists' thoughts on those tests makes good sense for a lot of reasons and isn't hard to do.

Cancer is a complicated disease that takes a team approach to tackle.

Physicians don't always know the latest information, and they look at the data through their own lenses. So gathering different points of view helps develop best treatment plans. 

And that's what this is all about. Getting you better.

When it's a good idea to get additional input

It's important that you fully understand and feel comfortable with the treatment options you've been offered. You'll want to seek additional insights when:

  • You want to know about additional options.
  • You're unsure if the doctor appreciates the scope of your disease.
  • The doctor can't say what's wrong with you.
  • You've been diagnosed with an unusual or rare form of cancer.

Getting a referral

Do check with your insurance company to make sure that a second opinion will be paid for. In some cases, your insurer may require that you get a second opinion, especially if you're looking at a high-dollar treatment.

Here are some questions that the American Cancer Society says are effective ways to get referrals from your existing provider:

  • “Before we start treatment, I’d like to get a second opinion. Will you help me with that?”
  • “If you had my type of cancer, who would you see for a second opinion?”
  • “I think that I’d like to talk with another doctor to be sure I have all my bases covered.”
  • “I’m thinking of getting a second opinion. Can you recommend someone?”

You can also research the names of oncology specialists in your area. You can look up and contact your local medical society, center or school for names as well.

Credentials can be reviewed the Official American Board of Medical Specialists (ABMS) at

You may also want to check for patient rankings and reviews of doctors and hospitals.

Sharing documents

Once you have decided who you will see for your second opinion, ask that your medical records, original imaging materials, and test results be sent to the referral doctor. You'll need to sign a release of information form. You may have to coordinate getting/forwarding documents from different sources.

It's also a really good idea to request and keep copies of all your medical records so you can have them to show to whomever. 

The new doctor will review everything, examine you and possibly order more tests.

Second opinions can change outcomes

Studies have shown that second opinions can not only change the course of treatment, but can change the overall outlook of the disease.

Recent research found that after reviewing slides from breast cancer patients, pathologists (physicians who interpret test results) at Northwestern University had big disagreements with the diagnoses coming out of community hospitals. These disagreements changed the surgical approach for 8 percent of the individuals and the outlook (prognosis) for a whopping 40 percent of the patients.

Do what's best for you

Just because you've been diagnosed with cancer doesn't mean you're powerless. You may find this experience an excellent time to take charge of your life in whole new ways.

Ask for what you need. Pay attention. Educate yourself. You decide. And do what you think and believe is best for you.

Review Date: 
June 15, 2012