A cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and lead to big changes in life. It is normal to feel anxiety about understanding the diagnosis, choosing where to go for the best care, learning about treatment options and how cancer will affect one’s life. When planning for treatment, asking the right questions and doing thorough research can relieve stress and help with making decisions. Experts with the Froedtert & the Medical College of Wisconsin Cancer Network recommend that people recently diagnosed with cancer ask these questions.  

Who are the specialists in my type of cancer? 

In the world of cancer doctors, or oncologists, some doctors treat many types of cancers and others specialize in limited numbers of cancers. Doctors with disease-specific expertise have completed intensive training in their chosen specialties, and their practice is focused on specific types of cancer or groups of related cancers. It is important to choose a doctor who has access to a network of disease-specific specialists to help refine care. 

“Specialists are well versed in all stages of a particular cancer and the ways it presents,” said Beth Erickson, MD, radiation oncologist and MCW faculty member. “Many disease-specific specialists are involved in national and international collaborative groups and help uncover innovations that move the specialty forward. This gives us a unique skillset.”

Specialists stay current on the latest research, clinical trials and treatments for the specific cancers they treat. This is important because treatments constantly evolve and doctors must understand the nuances of each type of cancer. Even more common cancers have intricacies.

“We are equipped to recognize warning signs and patterns in a disease process, which makes it easier to adjust a treatment plan accordingly,” said Alexandria Phan, MD, medical oncologist and MCW faculty member. “We can also better prepare patients for what to expect.” 

Who will be involved in my treatment?

Cancer is a complex disease, requiring the involvement of many specialists. A cancer team should be multidisciplinary, and ideally, all members of a care team should be experts in the type of cancer their patient has. This team will include surgeons, medical oncologists (for drug therapies) and radiation oncologists (for radiation therapy). Disease-specific radiologists and pathologists are just as important. Their input helps the team of doctors define specific characteristics of a patient’s tumor cells, cancer stage and the most effective treatments. Oncology-trained nurses, geneticists, dietitians, pharmacists and other clinicians are also vital for successful treatment. In addition, patients are supported with quality-of-life services.

When members of a patient’s disease-specific cancer team work together to provide well-coordinated, effective, personalized care, it results in the best possible outcomes.

“The ability to be flexible with treatment based on a patient’s specific disease and needs is unique to an experienced multidisciplinary team,” Dr. Phan said. “Depending on the molecular profile of a patient’s tumor, we can recommend additional therapeutic options — such as different drugs or combinations of drugs in clinical trials — for a more tailored treatment plan that goes beyond standard treatment approaches.” 

What is the team’s clinical trials experience? 

Many health care quality studies show a direct connection between better patient outcomes and academic medical centers. Academic medical centers provide greater access to clinical trials, bringing innovations and advancements to patients faster. Always ask a doctor if there is a clinical trial, no matter the type or stage of cancer. For some individuals, a clinical trial is the best treatment option.

“There are different types of trials, ranging from national cooperative group trials to investigator-initiated and early-phase trials,” Dr. Erickson said. “Choosing a center that offers many different types of trials for your cancer is ideal because you will have more options. We offer the largest cancer clinical trials treatment program in Wisconsin.”

Investigator-initiated and early-phase trials often result in changes to standard treatment guidelines. Centers performing these types of clinical trials can offer more treatment options, and their doctors demonstrate deep expertise in disease-specific areas. They are innovators, directing research that leads to new treatments. “Even if the discovery was made elsewhere, the infrastructure and expertise to quickly adapt to the change is already in place,” Dr. Phan said.

How does this team support patients in navigating the system? 

After a person is diagnosed with cancer, it can be intimidating to make the first phone call to a cancer center. Test results and records need to be transferred, more imaging may be needed and several appointments must be scheduled. _This can be stressful. A center that prioritizes the intake experience will make it as easy as possible.

“In our Cancer Network, a new patient coordinator will connect with you immediately,” Dr. Erickson said. “You will get to know them on a first-name basis. First, they will get your medical records transferred for you. They will also help you navigate the system, schedule everything so it is convenient for you and make sure doctors have what they need to review your case before meeting you. They will schedule you as quickly as possible because delays can be stressful.”  

Should I get a second opinion for my cancer? 

Anyone with a serious illness like cancer should seek a second opinion. Doctors won’t be offended. Second opinions are offered frequently within our Cancer Network. A second opinion will confirm a patient’s diagnosis and help them choose the best course of action. Patients can learn about treatment options they weren’t aware of, including clinical trials. A person will gain peace of mind knowing they have explored all avenues. For a second opinion, consider visiting a high-volume cancer center with access to a team of specialists devoted to the type of cancer diagnosed. Second opinions are typically easily accessible and may be available virtually. These appointments are often covered by insurance, or there may be financial support available.