Getting a Second Opinion: A First Priority in Cancer Care

A cancer patient and her daughter meet a new doctor.

About the Author: Jennifer Lessinger is a professional writer and editor at Patient Empowerment Network. She learned the value of patient empowerment during her struggle with a hard-to-diagnose and complex endocrine disorder.

It’s common practice to interview more than one contractor before homeowners hire them to work on their houses, and most drivers test drive a couple of cars before deciding which one to purchase. So it only makes sense that patients would insist on getting a second opinion before beginning a treatment plan with a doctor, but that is not always the case. While cancer patients are more likely to get a second opinion than patients with other diagnoses, many patients tend to forego the practice, which means they could be denying themselves specialized care and better treatment outcomes.

What is a Second Opinion?

A second opinion is an opportunity for the patient to consult with another doctor about diagnosis and treatment plans. The doctor reviews all the information about the patient’s diagnosis and offers an opinion about how the patient should proceed. Often, the doctor will agree with the original doctor’s diagnosis and treatment plan. But sometimes, depending on their level of expertise and experience, the doctor may recommend something different. Second opinions can be done in person or through telehealth, which increases the ability for patients to access the opinions and guidance of healthcare teams who are specialists in a particular disease. When patients get a second opinion, they often get more information about their illness and treatment plan, answers to questions they may have, and confidence and reassurance that they are in control of their care and taking the best steps toward a positive health outcome. 

 Who Should Get a Second Opinion?

All patients who want a second opinion are entitled to get one. Patients who are more likely to ask for a second opinion are  women, people with a chronic condition (such as cancer), middle-aged patients, and people with a higher education and socio-economic status. There are many reasons a patient might want a second opinion, and the patients who tend to benefit most are those who:

  • Have a rare or unusual cancer;
  • Have unclear test results;
  • Feel unsure about their treatment plan and diagnosis;
  • Want a doctor and healthcare team who is experienced in treating their particular disease or type of cancer;
  • Feel uncomfortable with their doctor or healthcare team;
  • Have cancer that is not responding to the current treatment.

 How to Tell your Doctor and Healthcare Team You Want a Second Opinion

It’s very common for patients to feel uncomfortable talking to their healthcare team about getting a second opinion. Patients don’t want to offend their doctors or hurt their feelings, but most are open to second opinions and will assist patients in the process. Start by telling the doctor and healthcare team that you appreciate the care you have received, but that you would also like to gather as much information as possible about your treatment options. Ask your healthcare team for referrals to any specialists or other providers that would be qualified to give a second opinion about your disease. Your doctor and healthcare team will also need to provide access to your test results and any other records pertaining to your diagnosis.

Remember that getting a second opinion is about you getting the best care and treatment possible. If your healthcare team is not open to the idea, that could be a sign of concern. Make sure you trust and are comfortable with your healthcare team. Getting a second opinion is a sign of collaboration between you and your healthcare team, and you should feel confident in having the support to make that decision.

 Other Tips for Getting a Second Opinion

When getting a second opinion, look for a doctor who specializes in your type of cancer. In addition to asking your healthcare team for referrals, you can ask family members or friends for recommendations. You can also turn to online resources such as Patient Empowerment Network to help guide you. Check with your insurance company, many of them will pay for a second opinion; some even require them, especially if surgery is needed as part of your treatment. Ask the doctor’s office where you are getting the second opinion if they accept your insurance plan.

 You can bring a trusted friend or family member to your appointment. They can offer support, ask questions, or help you take notes. When you meet with the doctor, pay attention to how well you communicate with each other, and how comfortable you feel with the entire healthcare team and the other staff members in the office. You should be prepared to discuss your diagnosis and the treatment plan your first doctor recommended and have a list of questions to ask, such as:

  • How experienced is the healthcare team with your type of cancer?
  • Is the healthcare team part of a cancer treatment center?
  • Can the healthcare team provide information about any clinical trials?
  • What type of support and assistance will the doctor’s office provide with setting up appointments, managing insurance claims, explaining side effects, and answering any questions that come up?

 What to Do Next

It’s likely that the recommendations from the second opinion will be similar to the first, so you will just need to decide if you want to proceed with the first doctor or if you would feel more comfortable with a different healthcare team. However, if the two opinions are different, you will have to decide your next steps. You could always get a third or more opinions, but keep in mind that too many opinions could be confusing. Another option is to talk to your original doctor about what the second doctor recommended, and maybe use the second recommendation to make changes to your treatment plan. You don’t have to switch healthcare teams, but you can if you feel more comfortable. It’s important to remember that it’s your health and that you need to be comfortable and confident in your treatment plan and care. You get to decide what works best for you.

 There are several resources you can access to help guide you in getting a second opinion:

  • Patient Empowerment Network (PEN), offers free online resources for cancer patients and care partners whenever you need them: 365 days a year, 7 days a week, 24 hours a day. Covering diagnosis and testing, treatment, clinical trials, financing cancer treatment, recovery, and everything in between, PEN will connect you to the programs, experts, peers, and other resources that are improving cancer outcomes.
  • National Cancer Institute (NCI) provides a list of online directories to help find a cancer specialist. If you need help finding a doctor to give you a second opinion, you can also call NCI’s Cancer Information Service (800) 4 CANCER or (800) 422-6237.