Diagnosed With Cancer? When to Get a Second Opinion? Seek, Listen, Learn
by Dr. C.D. Buckner M.D. & C.H. Weaver M.D. updated 9/1/2018
If you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, seeking a second opinion will allow you to learn more about your cancer type and make truly informed decisions about treatment.
Getting a second opinion is an important part of becoming educated about a cancer diagnosis and treatment options, and all cancer patients should consider seeing at least one additional expert after an initial diagnosis. Getting a second opinion will also give you the opportunity to find a physician you are comfortable with—someone you respect and who you believe is paying attention to your needs.
Advances in cancer care are currently occurring at an unprecedented rate due to advances in genomics and technology and the development of precision targeted therapies. In 2015 alone there were 32 new drug approvals by the US Food and Drug Administration for the treatment of cancer. Advances in surgery through the use of robotics and the delivery of radiation using newer technology that more precisely targets the cancer and spares normal tissues are occurring on an ongoing basis, and doctors are increasingly using available therapies in new ways to stimulate the immune system to fight cancer.
If you are facing a cancer diagnosis, you need to know which therapy will give you the best chance of a cure and will prolong your life with the fewest side effects. Getting a second opinion will help you understand the treatment options and help you make an informed decision.
While many patients I have interacted with over the years have expressed concern that seeking a second opinion might offend their doctor or delay treatment, this is simply not the case. Second opinions are routine, will not offend competent physicians, and do not delay therapy. Second opinions will, however, provide reassurance to you and your family and potentially expose you to other treatment options that will ultimately allow you to receive the most appropriate therapy.
What Is a Second Opinion?
A second opinion is a review of the primary physician’s cancer diagnosis and treatment recommendations by another, independent physician or cancer center. The most valuable second opinions are by physicians who have a dedicated research and clinical interest in your type of cancer at a major cancer center. Either you, as the patient, or the primary physician can initiate the process of getting a second opinion. Usually, patients obtain a second opinion after being referred to a second physician or to a team of experts, called a multidisciplinary team, in a cancer center. This doctor or team of doctors will review the following:
- The pathology report (how the cancer looks under a microscope) To confirm the diagnosis
- To see if appropriate testing for specific treatment targets was performed, and whether additional testing is necessary
- The stage or extent of spread of the cancer
- The patient’s physical condition
- The proposed treatment plan and other recommendations
The doctor(s) then communicate their opinion regarding treatment to you and, if you desire, to the primary physician. Second opinions are more likely to be comprehensive, or inclusive of every possible perspective, when performed in a cancer center with a multidisciplinary team, which usually includes surgeons, oncologists, radiation therapists, and sub-specialist oncologists.
Why Do I Need a Second Opinion?
A second opinion is part of the critical patient-education process. Cancer treatment has evolved tremendously in the recent past. As a result, many cancers are now more treatable than they once were, especially if the appropriate initial treatment is selected. To receive appropriate treatment, you must understand the type of cancer you have and the treatment options that are available.
There are also many more options for treatment, however, and these alternatives are more complicated than in the past. For these reasons and others, it is helpful to seek more than one opinion about how the cancer can be treated. A second opinion also provides the opportunity to get information from someone other than the physician who will be directing treatment, who is usually the main source of information for most patients. Second opinions are a common practice in any area of medicine that is complex and that has multiple treatment options available.
Is Getting a Second Opinion Considered “Bad Etiquette”?
Patients, relatives, and friends need to keep in mind that second opinions are a standard part of cancer management, and they should not be concerned about offending of the primary physician. If you decide to get an independent second opinion, it is important to communicate openly with the primary physician to obtain needed information for review and to keep the primary physician informed. Most physicians welcome the opportunity to have a consultant review and approve their care decisions—or perhaps suggest another treatment that may be a better option. There are instances in which a patient may disagree with the primary physician and will need to seek care elsewhere, but this is not the main purpose of a second opinion. Most of the time, you simply need to make sure you are getting the best advice.
Who Pays for A Second Opinion?
One problem you may encounter in seeking a second opinion is that insurers may not cover the expense. Many insurance and healthcare companies, however, do pay for second opinions and acknowledge their importance. In some situations insurers will even insist on a second opinion, as is often the case when the primary physician recommends an expensive treatment. Before you seek a second opinion, you will need to review your insurance plan to understand what it covers.
Where Should I Get a Second Opinion?
If possible, the best place to get a second opinion is from a physician at a cancer center that has expertise in your cancer type. This will usually, but not always, be at a major cancer center. That said, there are certainly community-based oncologists (general cancer doctors) who have specific treatment and research interests; the point is, get the opinion from someone who specializes in your cancer type.
Your primary oncologist should be able to refer you to another expert for a second opinion. In addition to your primary physician, social media can be quite helpful in seeking appropriate experts. Online communities of cancer patients are good resources, as you can connect with others who have already done the research and are often quite eager to help others facing a diagnosis. One of the leading social communities is CancerConnect; many patients learn of new treatment options and doctors with specific interests from others in these communities.
Who Should Get a Second Opinion?
Although the specific situations in which a second opinion is most useful have not been defined, there are clearly situations where a second opinion would be helpful and most patients would benefit. These may include:
- A poorly understood or communicated diagnosis
- An initial diagnosis by a non-cancer specialist
- A diagnosis by a cancer sub-specialist
- Apparent lack of treatment options
- A treatment plan that involves a clinical trial
- Rare cancers
- A treatment plan that involves surgery as primary treatment
- A diagnosis that has been made at a small or rural hospital
- A treatment plan that involves specialized treatment
Poorly understood diagnosis: Patients who feel that they may not fully understand the diagnosis and their treatment options should consider a second opinion. Another physician may communicate in a way that the patient can better understand, or simply hearing the diagnosis a second time may help the patient overcome any denial they may have.
Initial diagnosis by a non-cancer specialist: Patients who have been diagnosed by a non-cancer specialist benefit from a second opinion. In the United States, doctors other than oncologists often diagnose and treat patients with cancer. Cancers are diagnosed and treated by family doctors, internists, pediatricians, gynecologists, urologists, ear-nose-and-throat doctors and other non-cancer specialists. In most instances, appropriate therapy is administered. However, patients not treated by specialists in cancer treatment should consider seeking a second opinion. In some situations, physicians will not refer patients for a second opinion because they may lose control and revenue from treatment, they may be threatened by having their patient believe some other doctor is more knowledgeable, or often they are just too busy to consult other physicians. The patients of these types of physicians are probably the most in need of a second opinion.
Diagnosis by a cancer sub-specialist: Many types of cancers are treated by several different types of cancer specialists. For example, prostate cancer may be treated by urologists who are surgeons, radiation oncologists, and/or medical oncologists who use drug treatment. Each specialist may think that their treatment is the best treatment for the patient. An example of this is in the localized prostate cancer, where:
- Surgeons almost invariably advise surgery (radical prostatectomy)
- Radiation oncologists invariably advise some form of radiation therapy.
For this reason, a patient with cancers that are treated by sub-specialists may want to consult an oncologist (general cancer doctor) or multidisciplinary team to obtain a thorough understanding of treatment options. Seeking a second opinion from a different type of specialist can be informative but it can also, unavoidably, create confusion about treatment options. The best way to resolve this confusion is to gather and use all of the available information to making an informed decision.
Apparent lack of treatment options: A second opinion can be useful in some patients who are told that there is no appropriate treatment for their cancer and that there is no hope of survival or relief of symptoms from the cancer. Such patients have nothing to lose by seeking a second opinion. In this situation, patients should seek out physicians and institutions that specialize in treating their type of cancer and perform clinical trials. Often, this is accomplished by finding out who is performing clinical trials of novel treatments for the type of cancer in question. Here again, information available on the Internet can help locate such physicians and institutions.
A treatment plan that involves a clinical trial: When participation in a clinical trial is recommended by the treating physician, a second opinion should probably be obtained to make sure this is the appropriate treatment. There are many types of clinical trials, some of which may benefit a patient with a specific cancer and some of which may not. Doctors participate in cancer research by enrolling their patients in clinical trials; however, they often have trouble finding patients to participate. Unconsciously, such doctors may suggest a trial that may not represent the best treatment for a particular patient.
Rare cancers: When dealing with a rare cancer, it is usually best to seek a second opinion, unless the diagnosis is made at a center that specializes in the treatment of this cancer. If a local expert is available, treatment should probably be switched to that doctor. If the expert is far away, which is likely, the home physician can usually coordinate treatment by phone or e-mail. Even if your cancer isn’t rare, you may benefit from finding someone with a special interest in your specific type of cancer. For instance, kidney cancer is not really rare, but it’s not common either. Usually patients with kidney cancer are treated on clinical trials carried out in one of several large institutions. This is because the clinical trial may require specialized treatment and there are not enough patients with kidney cancer at one institution to make the research meaningful.
Surgery as primary treatment: If there is any doubt about the operability or inoperability of a cancer, a second opinion is in order. In this situation, patients are urged to seek second opinions in institutions where large numbers of patients are treated. For instance, esophageal cancer may be considered inoperable in a hospital that performs one such procedure a month, but may be considered operable in an institution that performs several per day. Just as important can be the determination that a cancer deemed operable is in fact inoperable and surgery would be harmful.
Small hospitals and rural practices: Patients who live in a rural area and get treatment at a small hospital probably should get a second opinion from a larger medical center before treatment is initiated. Although smaller hospitals typically deliver excellent treatment, it is prudent to ensure that the recommended treatment is appropriate and can be safely administered. Small and rural hospitals may not see a large volume of cancer patients, and while they are usually fully capable of delivering treatment, it is best to seek a second opinion to help determine what the appropriate treatment is. Sometimes, the recommended treatment will determine whether a patient should receive their treatment locally or travel to a larger medical center. For example, most small hospitals can effectively deliver chemotherapy; whereas patients requiring a complicated procedure, such as a stem cell transplant, may need to travel to a larger institution that treats a higher volume of patients.
Specialized treatment: Not all medical centers offer the specialized treatments that may offer the best results for some patients. In these cases, a second opinion may be in order. For example, bone marrow or blood stem cell transplants may offer the best chance for cure or control of the cancer for patients with blood and lymphoid cancers such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma and other cancers such as breast, ovarian, and testicular.
Specialized treatment may also be required for cancer involving the liver, a common site for metastases. Recent clinical trials have suggested that sophisticated treatment techniques such as intra-arterial chemotherapy, chemo-embolization, radiofrequency ablation, radioactive isotopes, and conformal radiation therapy can be of major benefit for the treatment of certain cancers. However, not all centers have the capability of delivering this type of treatment. Patients with cancers that can be treated by specialized methods require second opinions at specialized institutions.
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Charles Weaver, MD, is uniquely qualified to help patients navigate their cancer. As a pioneer of Internet-based cancer information, he has been educating and empowering cancer patients since 1997 when he founded CancerConnect.com, one of the first patient-focused cancer web portals. He founded and serves as Executive Editor of Women, and he developed and moderates the social media applications used by Harvard, Memorial Sloan Kettering and other leading cancer centers to support and engage thousands of cancer patients. Dr. Weaver trained at the University of Washington, the University of Pennsylvania, National Institutes of Health, and Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. His clinical research interests included stem cell therapy, breast cancer, lymphomas, and medical decision making. He has authored more than 75 articles in major medical journals including the Journal of Clinical Oncology, Blood, Cancer, Bone Marrow Transplantation and the New England Journal of Medicine.