“Can I get a second opinion?” is part of the popular lexicon; having branched out from a doctor-patient query, the phrase can now be used in just about any situation involving a potentially bad outcome. But if we get back to the saying’s origin, and when a diagnosis of cancer is involved, when should a patient seek a second opinion? How should people go about it?
In most instances of cancer, there is a lag-time between diagnosis and treatment. This gives the patient a window to seek out a second opinion, and to think about and research available options. That being said, there are diagnoses where the threat is so imminent that there may not be time to consult a second physician.
While some patients may worry that asking for a second opinion can be insulting to their doctor, nothing is further from the truth; it is a perfectly normal part of the diagnosis process. In fact, it may even be required depending on a person’s health insurance. But beyond these nuts-and-bolts issues, a second opinion can act as a confirmation of initial results (particularly if the cancer is rare), focus inconclusive test results, may be necessary if the first-round doctor is not a specialist, narrow (or expand) the treatment options, or be done if the patient simply feels more comfortable with another medical practitioner. A second opinion can also determine or confirm if a cancer has spread. On occasion, a first-round exam may leave a doctor uncertain, and a second is needed to make a correct diagnosis.
Asking for a second opinion is a legal right. But if a patient still fears the social awkwardness of “second guessing” a doctor’s medical findings, CancerCare.org suggests such tactful questions such as:
- “I respect your opinion, but I would like to speak with one other expert before starting your recommended treatment. How can I proceed?”
- “I need the reassurance of a second opinion and I’d like to talk with another doctor to be sure. What is the next step?”
- “This is all so new to me and I feel that a second opinion could help give me clarity.”
The National Foundation for Cancer Research also offers it’s Cancer Patient Navigation Hotline that can be very helpful in receiving a second opinion. Patients can connect with a medical team online who will establish a time to speak with them, answer questions they may have and provide second opinion information.
Most doctors will have a ready list of peers to whom a patient can refer, as will health insurance companies. Simple word-of-mouth can be a source as well. However, if a patient’s diagnosis involves a rare or obscure type of cancer, a specialist should be the go-to.
Second-opinion findings are usually in line with the first diagnosis, but that is not the rule. In the event a second opinion yields a different result, patients are advised to go back to their primary physician to discuss the difference. A third opinion may be necessary. And patients should know that second or third opinions do not mean they have to switch doctors.
When in doubt, please consider contacting NFCR’s Cancer Patient Navigation Hotline. We’re here to help you navigate your treatment options, provide you with the best information available and empower you to make good healthcare decisions.
American Cancer Society. (2019). Seeking a Second Opinion. Retrieved from: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/finding-and-paying-for-treatment/choosing-your-treatment-team/seeking-a-second-opinion.html
CancerCare.org. (2019). When To Get A Second Opinion. Retrieved from: https://www.cancercare.org/publications/264-when_to_get_a_second_opinion
MedicinePlus.gov. (2019). Your cancer diagnosis – Do you need a second opinion? Retrieved from: https://medlineplus.gov/ency/patientinstructions/000930.htm