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Here’s the typical scenario once you’ve discovered a lump in your breast: You get a mammogram, MRI or ultrasound to get a closer look at it. If any of those scans look suspicious, the next step is a biopsy to examine the cells. Usually done by a breast surgeon, a biopsy tells the doctor if the lump is cancer and how advanced it is. If it is cancer, the breast surgeon will recommend lumpectomy (removal of the tumor) or mastectomy (removal of the whole breast) and suggest additional treatments that may involve chemotherapy, radiation or both.
After you’ve gotten this opinion, you’ll need a medical oncologist to prescribe and monitor your chemotherapy and/or a radiation oncologist for radiation. John Connolly, Ed.D., president and CEO of Castle Connolly Medical Ltd., which publishes guides to the country’s top doctors, explained what to look for in an oncologist.
Find out if the oncologist is board certified. Medical oncologists are typically board certified in internal medicine and have a subspecialty certification in medical oncology. Radiation oncologists will be board certified in radiation oncology. Board certification means the doctor has met the minimum level of training and proficiency in his respective specialty. You can verify board certification at www.abms.org or by calling 1-866-275-2267.
Experience is hard to gauge in an oncologist, Connolly says. The best sign is that she’s practicing oncology full time.
Getting your care at a highly regarded hospital is another reliable measure of an oncologist’s capability. Look for a hospital designated as a comprehensive cancer center by the National Cancer Institute (NCI), Connolly says. These centers have surgeons, medical oncologists and radiation oncologists all under one roof, allowing them to coordinate your care and minimizing your travel. They also do cancer research, which grants you access to the most up-to-date treatment. “Like anything else, they’re more available in metro than rural areas,” Connolly says. “But they’re not so uncommon that someone shouldn’t find one within 100 miles.” (Look at this list for information on all 40 comprehensive cancer centers.)
You also may be eligible for a clinical trial, which gives you access to experimental treatments. Check the NCI’s database of clinical trials. “Often clinical trials have very firm definitions of the tumors and patients they’re dealing with,” Connolly says, so “you’d look to your doctors to be guiding you in that.”
Seeking support or more information? Visit our breast cancer support community board.