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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.

Who Needs a Second Opinion?

Getting a second opinion is never a bad idea. But there are instances in which you absolutely need one. They are:

  • If you have any doubts about your doctor or don’t get along with him or her. Having a good working relationship with your doctor is crucial. If you don’t have it, find someone else with whom you’re more comfortable.
  • If your doctor doesn’t have much experience treating your cancer. Ask your oncologist up front about whether he or she has a lot of experience treating your type of cancer. If not, you need a second opinion. Having experience is crucial in treating any cancer, says Burstein.
  • If you have a rare type of cancer. If you have a common cancer of the breast or prostate, there are plenty of good doctors that can help. But the average oncologist may not have seen many -- or any -- cases of a rare cancer. The problem is not just a lack of experience. “The rarer the cancer is, the more likely it is to cause a difference of opinion in how to treat it,” says Buckner.
  • If your doctor says no lifesaving therapy is available.

Getting a second opinion is usually pretty straightforward. First, check with your insurance company to see if they’ll cover it. Many insurers actually require a second opinion before cancer treatment. Next, ask your oncologist or your family doctor to refer you to another specialist for a second opinion.

You could also ask friends and family for a name of someone they liked. Or you could seek out an expert at a specialized cancer treatment center closest to your home. Online, you can use the WebMD Physician Directory to find a cancer specialist near you.

Do You Ever Need More Than 2 Opinions?

If two opinions are better than one, doesn’t it logically follow that three -- or four, or five -- would be even better? Experts say that in most cases, the answer is no. If two doctors reach a consensus, then there’s little point in hunting down more people who will almost certainly say the same thing.

However, there are rare occasions when a third opinion can be helpful, says Ades. Occasionally, specialists might disagree on the best course of treatment. For instance, a person with prostate cancer might get one piece of advice from his urologist and another from his oncologist. In these cases, Ades says, getting a third opinion could help. “It gets someone in there who can help tilt you toward one approach or another,” she tells WebMD.

Will Your Doctor be Angry If You Get a Second Opinion?

You may worry that asking for a second opinion will offend your oncologist. Isn’t it rude to second guess your doctor?

Experts say absolutely not. In fact, if your doctor reacts negatively to you getting a second opinion, it could be a bad sign. “I tell patients that if a physician seems at all bothered by your asking for a second opinion, then you absolutely need one,” says Buckner.  

Instead, doctors should welcome people getting a second opinion. Good doctors want you to feel confident in their care. They don’t want you to feel like you were bullied into working with them.

“When you ask for a second opinion, your doctor should say, ‘Good idea -- here’s a list of names,’” says Burstein. “That’s how he or she should react.”

So never be afraid to ask for a second opinion. In the end, getting a second opinion will probably improve your relationship with your doctor rather than undermine it. You’ll be able to start your treatment with new confidence in your doctor, knowing that you’re getting the best care possible.


Reviewed on April 23, 2009

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