So, how do you ensure that you’re getting high-quality cancer treatment? Are there certain features you should look for in a hospital or cancer center, or qualities you should seek out in a doctor?
Here are 10 questions to ask to make sure you’re on the right diagnosis and treatment path.
1. How much experience do you and your team have in treating my type of cancer?
Experience matters. And the expertise of your cancer team can make a world of difference in your treatment results and how you feel during treatment. This is especially true with rare cancers, or common cancers with rare genetic mutations.
So, the first thing to ask an oncologist is if they and their clinic team have taken care of others with your exact kind of cancer – both in the past year and in total.
At MD Anderson, our physicians are highly specialized and often dedicate their professional lives to treating specific types of cancer. So, it’s not uncommon for them to see more people with certain rare cancers in a day than many providers elsewhere may see in their entire careers.
2. Is your cancer center recognized by the National Cancer Institute?
Most cancer centers follow national guidelines when they provide basic cancer care, but it’s wise to look a bit deeper to see what type of accreditation the oncology practice has. This is particularly important if you want to be treated at a hospital that has clinical trials, specialized treatments such as CAR T cell therapy or a wide range of support services.
The National Cancer Institute (NCI) uses three different categories to classify medical facilities dedicated to treating cancer patients.
Cancer centers: provide basic cancer care, but, by definition, don’t conduct research, and don’t offer community engagement or education
Designated cancer centers: meet the criteria for multidisciplinary cancer care and demonstrate a commitment to research
Designated comprehensive cancer centers: leaders in both cancer care and research, these facilities have substantial resources to meet the needs of a much larger volume of patients; they also provide community outreach
MD Anderson is an NCI-designated comprehensive cancer center. In fact, MD Anderson was among the first facilities in the United States to receive the designation when it was created in 1972.
3. Which treatments are recommended for me, and how many of those are offered by your clinic?
Many new cancer treatments are highly specialized. Having access to state-of-the-art equipment and highly trained staff can make a big difference in patients’ results.
Proton therapy, for instance, is a specialized type of radiation therapy that results in fewer side effects. It allows doctors to target cancer more precisely, leaving healthy surrounding tissues untouched. If someone is eligible for proton therapy, they may enjoy a better quality of life both during and after treatment with proton therapy than more conventional radiation.
But fewer than 40 proton therapy facilities currently exist in the United States, including one at MD Anderson. In fact, MD Anderson was the first comprehensive cancer center in the country to open a proton therapy center.
Every treatment option is not right for every patient, but it’s important to know if the therapies recommended to treat your specific cancer are available where you’re seeking treatment. If not, make sure to ask your oncologist how and where they refer patients for such treatment options.
4. Do you offer clinical trials?
If a facility does have clinical trials, find out if they have any for your specific type of cancer and what phases the trials are in. Each phase of a clinical trial serves a different purpose.
If a facility doesn’t offer clinical trials, or only has a few, the next question to ask is, “What do you do when somebody might benefit from a clinical trial that is not offered here?” This answer will help you understand how that doctor and clinic work with other cancer centers.
5. How do you coordinate care with outside medical teams?
Patients who travel long distances for cancer care can sometimes receive certain treatments closer to home. For example, chemotherapy infusions and routine visits may be done with local oncologists in some cases. And patients in clinical trials may have routine lab work done locally.
So, ask your provider how they manage care when patients seek guidance from other teams with expertise in their type of cancer.
6. What’s your approach to multidisciplinary care?
The answer to this question is important not only from a treatment standpoint, but also when it comes to other services.
Most patients will need some combination of a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and surgical oncologist to treat their cancer. But what if you need a cardiologist to monitor your heart or a diabetes specialist to watch your blood sugar levels during treatment? Will one physician take the lead, but pull in other experts as needed to coordinate your care? Who will be helming the ship?
At MD Anderson, specialists from many different disciplines work together to manage your care. You’ll also have access to physical therapists, occupational therapists, dietitians, audiologists, speech and language pathologists and any other services you might need during and after your treatment.
Having all of these offerings under one roof means you don’t have to find and coordinate services on your own. It also ensures a smoother treatment process for you and greater coordination of care between your specialists at MD Anderson. So, find out what types of specialists and support programs you’ll have access to at your facility and which ones would require an outside referral.
7. Who can help navigate my cancer treatment?
Navigating cancer treatment can be overwhelming. So, where can you turn if you have questions about health insurance, for instance, or disability benefits? If you’re seeking treatment far from home, who can help you figure out if you need to visit for a week at a time, or only a few days? Will you be assigned a case manager, social work counselor or patient advocate? If so, how do you get in touch with them, and how quickly will they respond?
Before you’re sick or have complications, it’s important to know what to do when you need help. Does the oncology clinic have the capacity to get you in for a visit on the same day or the day after you call? How should you decide whether to call the clinic for advice or go to an emergency room?
If you don’t feel well at night or on a weekend, what should you do? Does your center have a pager or an answering service that takes calls 24/7? Is there a particular local hospital your care team would like you to go to in case of an emergency?
If you start having more symptoms, is there a palliative care team you can contact for help? Is there a pain team that can perform nerve blocks and other procedures?
Patients usually find their way to these services at some point, but often much later than they could have. So, it’s helpful to know what’s available in advance.
9. What other support services do you offer?
If your spouse or children need support, what resources are available to help them process their feelings about your diagnosis? Are there mental health professionals who can meet with you and your family? Are there clinical psychologists with expertise in child psychology who can help you explain your diagnosis and treatment? What about support groups for caregivers?
The answers to these questions are very important. Because cancer doesn’t just affect the patient — it impacts the whole family.
10. Do you offer telehealth appointments?
Some medical appointments can only be conducted in person, due to scans, blood tests, or symptoms that require a full physical examination. But sometimes you can get high-quality medical care in a virtual setting. Keep in mind that every state has different laws regarding virtual visits. So, talk to your care team to learn what options might be available to you.