Finding an Oncologist

Carolyn Vachani, RN, MSN, AOCN
Abramson Cancer Center of the University of Pennsylvania
Last Modified: July 22, 2013

One of the first surprises that many cancer patients learn is that they are really choosing a whole team of people, not just one oncologist. There may be a surgical oncologist (specializes in the surgical resection of cancers), medical oncologist (specializes in the use of chemotherapy and other medications in the treatment of cancer), and radiation oncologist (specializes in the treatment of cancer using radiation therapy) all intimately involved in an individual's cancer care. There are also a slew of nurses, nurse practitioners, technicians, dietitians, social workers, and other support staff that are all important members of the team.

This may make the task of choosing the right team for your care seem daunting. However, many cancer teams are already assembled, especially at institutions that treat cancer on a regular basis. Physicians who work well together will usually treat the same patients and refer patients to each other. Also, these physicians tend to put together a team with a "personality" similar to their own. You need to think of your physician as the quarterback; the leader of the team, but not more important than any of the other positions on the field. Quarterbacks try to surround themselves with good players, so everything runs smoothly and correctly. The quarterback also needs to choose players that he can trust to do the job correctly so the entire team works efficiently. Fortunately, this decision process may not be as difficult as it seems if you follow some basic guidelines.

  • You are in control. The final decisions are yours. You are the most important part of your health care team and you should feel comfortable with the team you choose.
  • Chose your quarterback, the rest will usually fall into place. Ask your primary care physician for a recommendation- your primary care physician has sent numerous patients to oncologists. They will typically know the oncologist on a professional level. They will have also had reports from the patients they have sent in the past on the quality of care that they received.
  • Comprehensive Cancer Centers typically have a team approach to the treatment of malignancies. You may consider a consultation at such a facility, and ask to meet an entire team of physicians there. This is sometimes called an "interdisciplinary team."
  • You may want to speak with people that have a similar diagnosis and have already gone through treatment, and then ask them for a recommendation. Be careful of recommendations or input from people who "know someone who had this problem". They often do not have the story straight and may end up unintentionally scaring you rather than helping you.
  • Contact your local American Cancer Society (ACS)- Your local ACS will have a list of the cancer centers and facilities in the area that deal with your diagnosis.
  • Nurses can be a great resource. Most have contacts with other nurses who may work with oncologists. They can typically give you the "inside scoop" on what a physician is really like.
  • Support groups- Sometimes local support groups can be helpful. You may find people who have already experienced a similar cancer diagnosis.
  • Internet- The Internet can be a great resource to obtain information and locate facilities in your area. Just remember, many excellent private practice oncologists do not have their own website, so this resource should be used in conjunction with the previous recommendations. In addition, anyone can post anything on the Internet, so use caution with claims on websites. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.


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