To battle cancer, choose oncologist with care

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Operating room (Credit: Los Angeles Times/Rick Loomis)

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Numbed by the shock of a cancer diagnosis, some patients rush to visit an oncologist and never seek a second opinion.

But taking time to carefully choose an oncologist - a cancer specialist - can make a difference in battling the life-threatening disease.

"I cannot overemphasize how homework in the beginning can really impact so significantly the overall outcomes and satisfactions with the care you receive," said Dr. Paul Liu, medical director of the cancer program and chief of gynecologic oncology at South Nassau Communities Hospital in Oceanside.


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Liu suggests getting referrals from primary care doctors as well as family members and friends who have battled cancer and were satisfied with their care. Patients should consider interviewing several oncologists and should check their academic credentials and whether they're board-certified.

If you feel uncomfortable with one oncologist who's been recommended, consult another, Liu says.

"There's no need to feel shy," Liu says. "When patients come in, the last thing I say is: I recommend you seek a second opinion."

Oncologists should advise patients about all available treatments and address their concerns, Liu says, noting that a defensive doctor is probably a "red light." He also suggests that good care often can be found close to home, though patients with rare cancers might want to seek treatment at large,

university-based hospitals with more specialties.

At the Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success, part of the North Shore- Long Island Jewish Health System, Dr. Iuliana Shapira, an oncologist, says identifying an outstanding hospital that offers cancer treatment can help in the search for an oncologist.

"When you have a hospital that has a very good reputation, they [patients] can choose from among the best physicians," Shapira says.

Shapira also suggests patients consider oncologists who either participate in clinical drug trials or are familiar with them and might know about experimental treatments.

"Once you're [a doctor] in clinical trials, you know a little bit more about cancer," Shapira says.

At Huntington Hospital, Gail Probst, an advanced oncology nurse who is director of cancer services, says patients should look for an oncologist who pays attention to their concerns and those of their families.

"The oncologist is going to follow you for a lifetime,"

Probst says. "They follow you once the actual acute stage of the disease has gone."

Sometimes, Probst said, patients might become unhappy with their oncologists after several visits. In cases like that, patients should express any qualms they have to their oncologists, Probst said. If things don't improve, it might be time for a change.

"You can always switch," Probst says. "Get all opinions up front and feel comfortable in the decision you've made."

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