You and Your Medical Oncologist

By Francesca Di Meglio
Reviewed by Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

As you deal with cancer, one of the main people by your side will be your medical oncologist. They’ll be your partner while you’re combating cancer and undergoing treatment, and together you’ll ensure your comfort and health. Naturally, you’ll want to take some care when choosing this crucial member of your care team.

Here’s a checklist of what to look for when choosing your oncologist:

Referrals and reputation
Ask your primary care physician, friends, family, colleagues and insurance company for referrals. Narrow your search by considering oncologists whose names come up most often. You can also look at lists of oncologists (and/or treatment facilities) recommended by organizations, such as the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Often these groups have already vetted healthcare professionals, reducing your legwork. Remember, though, that if you choose someone outside your insurance network, you may have out-of-pocket costs for treatments and services.

Training and expertise
Reading the biographies of oncologists and interviewing those you’re considering are good ways to become familiar with their training. Find out what their specialties are, where they went to medical school and what experiences they’ve had on the job. Ask about their experience and success rates with treating your particular type of cancer. Having a medical oncologist who specializes in your type of cancer is important. The American Cancer Society suggests asking whether the oncologist participates in and has access to clinical trials and finding out whether they’ll present your case to other medical professionals—both steps indicate that you’ll have a team of knowledgeable professionals looking into your care.

Good working relationship
Once the practical qualifications are out of the way, you can start paying attention to your gut. Is the oncologist a good communicator? A good listener? How comfortable do you feel with this oncologist? Do you like them? Dennis Citrin, a medical oncologist at the Cancer Treatment Centers of America at Midwestern Regional Medical Center in Zion, IL, believes the most important aspect of the relationship is mutual respect. You must also decide whether you feel this healthcare professional will hear and respond to your questions and concerns. Naturally, you’ll want someone who has a good bedside manner and puts you at ease as much as possible. After all, maintaining a positive attitude is crucial and won’t happen if you don’t see eye to eye with your oncologist.

“When I work with patients, it’s helpful to know their short- and long-term goals so that together we can find the best way to achieve those goals,” says Citrin. “Ask questions and make sure the doctor’s advice is something you feel comfortable following through on.”

As breast cancer survivor Lynette Bisconti says: “You’re the patient, but also the customer—you have a say in what happens to you.”

Published March 2014

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