Tips for Choosing an Oncologist

A cancer diagnosis can throw anyone into a tailspin. One of the first things that a newly diagnosed patient with cancer must do is select an oncologist who will direct treatment and serve as the primary medical advisor. Your community oncologist may be the right person for you. However, some patients with cancer benefit from getting treatment and advice from an oncologist who specializes in that particular form of cancer.

Choosing an oncology specialist

According to the American Society of Clinical Oncologists1, there are 3 categories of oncologists:

  • Medical oncologist: someone treating cancer with chemotherapy as well as other medications, such as targeted therapy

  • Radiation oncologist: physicians who provide radiation treatment, sometimes a stand-alone treatment, and sometimes used in conjunction with chemotherapy

  • Surgical oncologist: specializes in surgical excision of cancerous tumors and tissues. They sometimes even subspecialize in specific types of cancer, such as pancreatic and gastric cancer or gynecological surgery

Depending on your diagnosis, you may end up seeing any or all of the above. In addition to these categories, there are also subspecialists—oncologists who concentrate on a specific type or types of cancer, such as prostate cancer specialists, breast cancer specialists, non-Hodgkin lymphoma specialists, and so on. Often, these subspecialists have years of experience researching and treating specific conditions, and have extensive knowledge of what types of therapies may be effective for you. 

Doing basic research

While researching oncologists, you should be sure to ask about these items:

  • Is the doctor board-certified? While doctors who aren’t board-certified can still be good doctors, those who have completed and maintained board certification have passed a high-level test in the field and stayed current, according to the American Cancer Society2

  • What fellowships and advanced training has the physician done in that specialty? Likely you’re going to want to work with an oncologist who knows the ins and outs of your specific type of cancer, so advanced training counts for a lot

  • How many patients like you has the physician seen? You don’t want to be a unique case for this physician. You want someone who is experienced in your type of cancer, especially if it’s a rare cancer, according to the American Society for Clinical Oncology3

  • Does the physician conduct or have access to clinical trials? You don’t have to make any decisions up front about joining one, but knowing this is a potential option could give you more treatment opportunities

  • What insurance do they accept and what hospital systems do they work with? Seeing a physician who accepts your insurance will make the paperwork and financial aspects of care easier for you. You can still see a physician who doesn’t accept your insurance; however, you may have to pay those costs yourself. Also, you’ll want to make sure your physician has admitting privileges at the hospital you plan to use

  • What are the office hours and how are nights and weekend calls handled? Cancer team logistics are important. You’ll want to know you have access to a medical professional at all hours. What’s the usual wait time for a patient to see the doctor, both in making appointments and when you arrive at the office? Chances are you will be seeing this doctor frequently. You may want to avoid the stress caused by a physician with longer wait times or who has limited appointment availability

Even after choosing an oncologist, many people choose to get a second opinion. It’s very common,  and some insurance companies even require one before they’ll pay for treatment, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology4.

Choosing an oncologist doesn’t have to be a daunting process. With some research, phone calls and preparing the right questions to ask, you can find the right oncologist to treat your specific type of cancer.



  1. Types of oncologists. Accessed August 7, 2020.
  2. American Cancer Society. Choosing a doctor and a hospital. Accessed August 7, 2020.
  3. Choosing a doctor for your cancer care. Accessed August 7, 2020.
  4. Seeking a second opinion. Accessed August 7, 2020.



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