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Cancer: When Do You Need a Second Opinion, and Why?

Getting a second opinion is your right as a cancer patient.
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WebMD Feature

After you’ve been diagnosed with cancer and your doctor has outlined your treatment, you may still have a nagging doubt: what if my doctor is wrong? No matter how much you like or trust your oncologist, it’s natural to wonder if something was missed or if a new treatment is available. If you have any doubts, get a second opinion.

Getting a second opinion is increasingly common, experts say. “In the past, people with cancer were often anxious about asking for a second opinion,” says Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. “But today, they’re much more comfortable.” And you should be comfortable. This is your medical care and your life. Getting a second opinion is your right as a patient.

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Besides, with something as serious as cancer, having the input of another expert makes sense. When you’re shopping for a new car, you don’t buy from the first salesman you meet. You shop around. And if you’re willing to make that effort with a car, shouldn’t you be at least as careful in deciding on your cancer treatment?

Experts say that doctors should never try to prevent you from getting a second opinion -- instead, they should encourage it.

“Doctors want patients and their families to feel comfortable with their treatment,” says Harold J. Burstein, MD, a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School. “Second opinions are often really helpful because they offer reassurance.”

So what do you need to know about getting a second opinion? WebMD asked the experts.

Why Get a Second Opinion?

What are the benefits of getting a second opinion? Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn., gives part of the answer: “Not everybody is right every time,” he tells WebMD. He has seen cases in which a second opinion changed the treatment, prognosis, and even diagnosis.

 But while there’s always a chance that a second opinion will completely alter your treatment, experts say that such cases are in the minority.

"Second opinions can be useful for many reasons, even if the doctors are following standard guidelines,” says Burstein. “They can confirm the direction you are already heading, but they might also suggest new directions or considerations, or perhaps clinical trials, that are being pursued at comprehensive cancer centers. Experience matters in caring for cancer patients, and second opinions allow patients to tap into a wealth of oncology experience."

Even if most second opinions just confirm what you already know, they still play an important role. A second opinion offers peace of mind.

“Without getting a second opinion, people are sometimes obsessed with ‘what ifs,’” says Buckner. “What if I’d had a different treatment? What if I’d seen a different doctor?” Getting confirmation from a second opinion can really help. You know that multiple experts agree on the treatment you need. You can feel more confident that you’ve made the best possible choice.

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