When you learn that you or a family member has cancer, you want to get the best possible medical care and treatment. Choosing a doctor will be one of the most important decisions you’ll make.
Finding the right cancer doctor (oncologist) can take time. It is important that you find a doctor you feel comfortable with and who will work with you through your diagnosis and treatment. Ask the doctor who found your cancer if you need to find a cancer doctor right away or if you can take some time to check out your options.
First, you need to look for a doctor who treats your type of cancer. You may need a special type of oncologist or even more than one kind of oncologist for your treatment. The most common types of cancer doctors include:
Some doctors in large cancer centers limit their services to people with specific types of cancer. For example, you might be able to locate an oncologist who specializes in treating breast, prostate, lung, colorectal, or other types of cancer. This can be extra helpful if you have a rare type of cancer or one that is hard to treat.
During your cancer treatment you may see more than one kind of cancer doctor, but your cancer and treatment type will determine who your main cancer doctor will be. Carefully choosing the doctor you need will help you navigate treatment. Your relationship with this person will probably last through treatment into long-term follow-up care.
Before you start looking for a doctor, think about the qualities you want your doctor to have. A few ideas are listed below, but there may be others you want to add.
Our worksheet called How to Choose a Cancer Doctor may be useful during this process. It includes tips on how to find names of cancer doctors and questions that can help decide who the best fit for you is.
You may want to start by getting referrals from people you trust. The doctor who found your cancer is the first person you should ask. Try asking: “If you or someone you loved had this cancer, which doctor would you go to for treatment?” In many cases, the doctor will suggest another doctor even if you don’t ask. If your doctor isn’t sure of your diagnosis, but thinks there’s a chance you might have cancer, you can ask: “If you were in my place, which doctor would you see first?” Ask for at least 2 or 3 names, and find out what these doctors’ specialties are.
You might also speak with others in your area who have been treated for the type of cancer you have. Some hospitals and communities also have physician referral services available by phone or online. These allow you to learn more about the doctors in your area, such as their areas of expertise, medical certifications, office locations, languages spoken, and so on. You can find these referral services by calling a cancer center or hospital’s main number or visiting their websites.
There are also online national directories of medical doctors, including those that specialize in cancer.* Each provides a search option so you can look for the type of doctor you need.
*Inclusion of a healthcare professional in any of these databases does not imply endorsement by the American Cancer Society.
If you have health insurance , you should check the names you get against their list of network doctors. Usually, you can do this online or by calling the member services hotline.
Once you’ve found doctors that seem like a good fit for you, call their offices and ask if they’re on your health insurance plan and are taking new patients. You might also want to find out which cancer centers and hospitals they work in and where they can admit patients.
If you can do it, the next step would be to set up appointments with a few doctors. Check with the doctors’ offices and your insurance company to find out if this kind of visit is covered. If these visits are not covered, you may want to ask some of these questions on the phone until you’ve narrowed down your choices.
Ask the doctors how much experience they have treating your type of cancer. If you’re meeting with a surgeon, find out how often they do the type of surgery you need, how many of these surgeries they have done, and what their success rate is. You may also have to ask how they define “success,” depending on the cancer type.
Along with finding out the doctor’s medical experience and credentials, notice how comfortable you feel with them. One way to measure this is to ask yourself:
Trust your instincts when deciding if the doctor is right for you. It may take more than one visit before you and your doctor really get to know each other.
Board certified doctors have had extra training in special areas, such as medical oncology (cancer care), hematology (diseases of the blood), or gynecologic surgery (female reproductive system). They have taken and passed certification tests approved by doctors in their field. To keep their certification, doctors must continue to keep up with advances and changes in their specialty area.
Not all doctors who are specialists are board certified, and doctors don’t need to be board certified to be excellent caregivers. Still, many doctors become board certified in at least one specialty.
To find out if a doctor is board certified, contact the American Board of Medical Specialties (ABMS). The ABMS has a list of board certified doctors who subscribe to the ABMS service. You can do a free search for all doctors in a certain specialty by state. Or you can type in the name of the doctor to learn about their specialty.
You might want answers to these questions:
You may also want to find out who the leading specialists in the field are, if any are in your area, or if you might need to travel to find one. A visit to a medical library or your local library may be useful. You can research doctors on the Internet, too. You can start with us, or go to other respected websites like cancer.gov or medlineplus.gov. Look for the names of doctors who have written about the cancer you have and whose work is most often quoted. If your doctor has published research, you might be able to look at those articles online or get copies at the library. By doing so, you can learn more about the doctor’s approach to cancer treatment.
More than ever, cancer is treated outside the hospital. However, for some treatments and problems, a hospital stay is needed. Where you will get inpatient hospital cancer care depends on where your doctor practices. Find out where you would go for surgery or other care. Check with your health insurance plan to see which doctors and hospitals are covered.
Teaching at a respected medical school may suggest that a doctor is a leader in their field. Doctors who teach and take care of patients may be in contact with medical experts around the country. And they might know more about the latest treatments.
It might be helpful to ask around about a doctor’s reputation if you have any concerns. You should feel comfortable not only with your doctor’s ability to treat your cancer but also with how they treat you as a person. Can you talk with this doctor? Do they listen to you? If you don't get the right answers, keep looking.
Even after you have chosen your doctor, you might want to get a second opinion. This is a good idea if you feel uncertain about the proposed treatment. For instance, if you have prostate cancer and a urologist has recommended surgery, you may want to see a radiation oncologist to learn about non-surgical treatment.
We have more on the steps you can take to get a second opinion on your cancer treatment plan.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
American Board of Medical Specialties. About Board Certification. Accessed at www.abms.org/About_Board_Certification/ on September 15, 2021.
American College of Surgeons. Commission on Cancer: Improving Outcomes for Patients with Cancer. facs.org. Accessed at https://www.facs.org/quality-programs/cancer/coc on September 15, 2021.
American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO). Choosing a Cancer Treatment Center. Cancer.net. Accessed at https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/managing-your-care/choosing-cancer-treatment-center on July 29, 2021.
National Cancer Institute. Finding Health Care Services. Cancer.gov. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/managing-care/services on August 3, 2021.
Last Revised: September 17, 2021