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Hearing the words that you have cancer is like getting hit by an invisible speeding truck while you are picking flowers in a garden. It is the absolute last thing that you ever thought would or could happen to you. In all my years of oncology nursing, I have never met anyone who expected to be diagnosed with cancer. 

You suddenly find yourself living on another planet, where there is a whole new language, tests and procedures regarding body parts that you barely knew existed, and discussions about things that you had hoped that you would never need to understand. You have been thrown into a foreign land and it may seem as if you can hear a clock ticking in your mind, while you are forced to make incredibly difficult decisions right now.  

While I cannot make all of this unfamiliarity go away, or provide a quick fix that will make everything seem normal again, I hope that this article will assist giving tips to consider when choosing your oncologist. I do want to emphasize that this important decision is in fact, your choice. Your primary care physician, or whoever discovered your cancer can make recommendations and refer you to an oncologist but you certainly are not required to default to their choice. If your doctor makes the referral and appointment for you, it is perfectly acceptable to ask why they are recommending that specific oncologist.

Things to consider:

Ask about the oncologist’s credentials and experience 

  1. Where did he/she go to medical school and complete their fellowship training? 
  2. How many years have they been working in Oncology? 
  3. How often have they treated your type of cancer?

Is he/she board certified in Hematology (the study of blood and blood disorders) and/or Medical Oncology? 

  1. Board certification means that the physician meets nationally recognized standards for skills, education, and knowledge/experience in a specific medical specialty. 
  2. Simply put, certification goes beyond basic medical licensure.

What additional services will be provided? Does this physician or cancer center have a dietitian, social workers, and genetic counselors available?

  1. It is very helpful to have a team of resources to help you and your caregivers during this treatment journey. 
  2. You may not need them immediately or all at the same time, but often at some point during your treatment it is useful to have these additional resources available.

Does the physician participate in or have access to clinical trials?

  1. Participating in or having access to clinical trials tells you that they are aware of the latest treatments available and may have additional treatment options to offer, if needed.  
  2. If you are in a community setting, it also means that you can have access to the same treatment options as patients going to the large, well-known cancer centers without leaving the convenience and support of those in your community.

Physician’s bedside manner and personality

  1. I have known brilliant physicians….that had absolutely no bedside manner. Personally, I need the full package. I want to be confident in their skills/knowledge and for them to have a good bedside manner. (And yes, this does exist!) 
  2. Does the physician explain things in a way that you understand? 
  3. Does he/she answer your questions? 
  4. Do you feel rushed during your visit? 
  5. Do you feel comfortable talking to him/her? 
  6. Is his/her personality a good fit with yours?

Friendliness and helpfulness of the staff

  1. Remember that you will not just be dealing with your physician. You will rely and interact frequently with the entire staff in their office, including nurses, medical assistants, lab technicians, and administrative staff such as schedulers and the billing office personnel.  
  2. Is the physician’s staff friendly, helpful, and compassionate?


  1. Keep in mind that you will likely be making a number of visits to your oncologist’s office. 
  2. Although this will vary between patients and depends on your diagnosis and treatment plan, remember to keep the location (distance) of the office in mind.


  1. Is this oncologist covered by your insurance and in your network or will you be paying “out-of-network” percentages on all of your care?
  2. *Caution: this will really add up. Choose an in-network provider whenever possible.

Choosing an oncologist is an important decision. It is helpful to have personal recommendations from your physician, friends, family, and former/existing patients receiving treatment. However, remember to go with your instincts. The oncologist that may be right for your neighbor might not be your best match. Listen to negative comments as well, especially from those with first-hand experience realizing that it may be the situation that made a negative impression versus the actual physician (i.e. patients receiving bad news does not necessarily equal a bad physician).

When I worked in Clinical Trials, we would often get patients from other practices that came to our office specifically for treatment on a trial. After the clinical trial was complete, they would typically go back to their original oncologist. I remember one patient from another oncologist who decided to stay with our practice after the clinical trial was completed. The patient’s original oncologist was well-respected, highly competent, had excellent credentials and years of experience in oncology. The patient stated that there had never been a problem.

I asked the patient why they decided to stay with us. The patient told me that besides being very confident and happy with our care, we simply made her laugh. Everyone in our office was cheery and upbeat. We asked about her family and what was going on in her life, besides merely focusing on symptoms of the day. The patient said she actually looked forward to seeing us because she knew we would make her laugh and it would not a “downer” just being in our office. The patient said, “Cancer is serious enough. I don’t need more serious.” When all things are equal (credentials and experience), go with your gut instinct of the physician and staff that make you feel most comfortable. You’ll be glad you listened.