Selecting 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 specialists include surgeons, medical oncologists, plastic surgeons, and radiation oncologists. These doctors often work together as a team.
Why Do I Need So Many Doctors to Treat Breast Cancer?
Once diagnosed with breast cancer, your chances for getting the best possible results are greatest if all your care providers are involved at the time of initial diagnosis. Because of this, it's very important that all your cancer specialists who will be involved in your diagnosis and treatment participate in discussions that will determine the strategy for your breast cancer care.
What Is a Specialist?
Specialists are doctors who have completed their residency training in a specific area of medicine. After finishing the education and training needed for their specialty, they must pass an exam given by the specialty board. Doctors who meet all of the requirements for their specialty and pass the national board exams are given the status of "diplomate." They are now board-certified specialists in their fields. Doctors who have not completed the specialty board exam are "board-eligible," but are not yet specialists.
A specialist can become a subspecialist as well. To do this, the doctor must complete at least one additional year of full-time education in a particular area of a specialty. He or she can then become board-certified in the subspecialty, too.
Should I Look for a Board-Certified Cancer Specialist?
Board certification, or the international equivalent, is a sign that a doctor is highly trained in his or her field. Several fields related to cancer care have national boards that are responsible for setting standards that doctors must meet in order to be certified. However, board certification does not exist for some of the specialties that are important in cancer treatment. Doctors who practice in these specialties are board-certified in a broader field. For example, no board certification exists for breast cancer surgery. Surgeons performing these procedures, however, 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 related to cancer diagnosis and treatment, are usually good measures of their qualifications.