Choosing a doctor to treat your breast cancer may be one of the most important decisions you will ever make. Your primary care doctor may refer you to one or more specialists. These doctors often work together as a team.
Why Do I Need So Many Doctors to Treat Breast Cancer?
Once you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your chances for getting the best possible care are highest if all your health care professionals are involved at the beginning, when you're diagnosed. It's very important that all of the people who will be involved in your diagnosis and treatment work together.
What Is a Specialist?
Specialists are doctors who have trained in a specific area of medicine. After finishing the training needed for their specialty, they must pass an exam given by the specialty board. Doctors who pass the national board exams become board-certified specialists. Doctors who have not completed the specialty board exam are "board-eligible" but are not yet specialists.
Some specialists can subspecialize by completing more training in a particular area. They can sometimes become board-certified in the subspecialty, too.
Should I Look for a Board-Certified Cancer Specialist?
Board certification is a sign that a doctor is highly trained in his or her field. Several fields related to cancer care have national boards responsible for setting standards that doctors must meet in order to be certified. But some of the specialties that are important in cancer treatment don’t have board certifications. Doctors who practice in these specialties are board-certified in a broader field. For example, there is no board certification for breast cancer surgery. Surgeons performing breast cancer surgery should be board-certified in general surgery, which gives them the basic skills needed to perform breast surgery.
If doctors practice in specialties that do not have national boards, additional training such as fellowships and years of experience are usually good measures of their qualifications.
What Does Each Specialist Do?
Medical oncologist. A doctor who specializes in the medical treatment of cancer. Medical oncologists have a thorough knowledge of how cancers behave and grow and how to use medication to treat them. They also figure out the risk of the breast cancer coming back, as well as the need for more treatments (such as chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, or radiation therapy). The medical oncologist manages your overall medical care for cancer and monitors your health during your treatment. He or she checks your progress frequently, reviews your lab and X-ray results, and coordinates your medical care before and after your treatment.
Surgical oncologist. A doctor who specializes in the surgical treatment of cancer. Surgical oncologists perform biopsies and other operations such as removing a lump or a breast. These doctors have completed their general surgery training and have received additional training in surgical oncology.
Breast surgeon. A doctor who specializes in the surgical removal of breast tumors and lymph nodes while saving as much of the breast as possible. These doctors may also do biopsies to diagnose or treat the cancer.
Plastic surgeon. A surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction.
Radiologist. A doctor who is trained in reading X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, ultrasounds, and other forms of imaging that look into the body.
Pathologist. A doctor who checks tissue samples under a microscope. Pathologists decide whether cancer is present, its size, whether the surgery removed all the cancer, and how many lymph nodes have cancer, if any. The pathologist's report also tells the stage of a cancer.
Radiation oncologist. A doctor trained in treating cancer with radiation.
- Oncology nurses. Nurses with special skills who pass a certifying test.
- Radiation technologist. A professional who helps place you in the correct treatment position and delivers the proper radiation dose to the proper site.
- Radiation physicist. A professional who helps plan the radiation dosage and treatment field to make it as safe as possible.
How Do I Find a Specialist to Treat my Breast Cancer?
Your primary care doctor can refer you to a specialist to treat your breast cancer. You can also get the names of specialists from a medical society, your local hospitals, and medical schools. In addition, the American Board of Medical Specialties publishes The Official ABMS Directory of Board Certified Medical Specialists. This publication lists a specialist's name, education, and specialty field. The directory can be purchased, but it is also available at no charge through www.abms.org or at most public libraries.