What's the best way to ask for a second opinion for breast cancer?

4 answers | Last updated: Jul 20, 2014
A fellow caregiver asked...

What's the best way to ask for a second opinion for breast cancer for my 72-year-old mother? Her oncologist is supposed to be very good. But he's somewhat prickly, and gets defensive when I ask about other possible treatment options.

Expert Answers

Bonnie Bajorek Daneker is author and creator of the The Compassionate Caregiver's Series, which includes "The Compassionate Caregiver's Guide to Caring for Someone with Cancer," "The Journey of Grief," "Handbook on Hospice and Palliative Care," and other titles on cancer diagnosis and end of life. She speaks regularly at cancer research and support functions, including PANCAN and Cancer Survivor's Network. She is a former member of the Executive Committee of the CSN at St. Joseph's Hospital of Atlanta and the Georgia Chapter of the Lymphoma Research Foundation.

Getting a second (or even a third) opinion is critical to identifying the right type of care, so don't let a prickly personality stand in your way.

The best strategy is to make your mother's oncologist feel respected and part of the process right from the start. Your goal should be to turn him into a partner in your mother's care, not an obstacle. Ask him, "If you were in my shoes and taking care of someone you love, what other doctors or treatment centers would you consult to make sure you're making the right decisions? And what are the questions you'd ask?" If he balks at all, try a little self-deprecating humor. "I know I'm being a little obsessive about all this," you might say, "but I'd just feel much better if I had more information and more perspectives to help me sort through the options."

If you already have an expert in mind for a second opinion, tell your mother's doctor whom you're thinking about seeing -- they may know of or have heard of each other.

If you ask your mother's oncologist to recommend someone for a second opinion, be sure to communicate any qualifications or criteria you have in mind. If your mother's oncologist is recommending against surgery, for example, you might want to talk to an oncologist who usually advocates surgery -- just to reassure yourself. Don't settle for a second opinion from a doctor in the same practice, though; it's best to find a doctor from an outside practice who specializes in the same field.

One caution: when it comes to referrals, don't feel you need to follow up on every suggestion from friends or family. ("My uncle Jim is a doctor; why don't you call him?") Sometimes referrals are very helpful, but other times the referring person may unintentionally lead you toward someone who isn't appropriate. This often happens because the well-intentioned friend or family member doesn't have all the specifics about the type of cancer your mother has or how far it has progressed. If you think the referral may be on target, do some follow-up investigation before you suggest to your mother that you seek the additional opinion. That way you don't raise false hopes or overload your mother with information that doesn't turn out to be relevant.

Whatever you do, seek second opinions right away, while all test results are current. If time passes, the second opinions may not match the first -- either because the cancer has progressed or improved in the meantime or because your mother's condition has changed in other ways.

Community Answers

Littlesister answered...
If you feel strongly about getting a second/third opinion from your mother's oncologist, respectfully make no bones about it. Be prepared to say something along the lines of, "We are interested in exploring all treatment options. It's very possible we'll end right back here with you, beginning the treatment plan you've suggested. But we will not sleep at night until we feel we have covered all bases." If he is resistant, say something like, "We will weigh your recommendations and opinions heavily when making our decision." In my own experiences, once you get apologetic about seeking a second opinion, you (or your mother) can easily be talked out of getting one.

A fellow caregiver answered...

I agree other opinions are needed asap. Don't be bullied. You must take your health into your own hands. After all, it is your life at stake, If you get only one opinion, and that doctor is wrong, he will not pay your bills, nor take care of your family, nor will he attend your funeral, but he will sign your death certificate, and forget about you the next day. Not all first opinions are wrong, but again, it is your life! Any doctor worth his weight in gold will encourage a second and third opinion

Anaprilrose answered...

I am a survivor of 3 different kinds of cancer (breast, thyroid, lung with mets to the brain) Throughout this 9 year "journey" I have found that you have to be your own health care advocate. I have asked for 2nd opinions (and sometimes 3rd opinion) on every one of my cancers, and have even gotten second opinions on biopsies and films.   Most Dr.s are very use to this and in more sever cases really expect you to ask for one.  If your Dr. balks at the idea get a different one.   You need a team of Dr.s that want the best for you....not whats best for their egos.