There are a variety of reasons why women opt not to get a second opinion after they’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer. Some patients fully trust their doctors or are so focused on all the new information there is to take in about their diagnosis that they never even consider it. They may not even know it’s an option. Others would love to have a second opinion but don’t want to pay for an extra appointment or worry that their doctor might see it as a slap in the face if they ask to see another doctor. And others may feel like they’ll be perceived as being in denial if they don’t “believe” what their doctor is saying.
But if you think you don’t need a second opinion, think again. Recent research on the matter is demonstrating exactly how important it is to get another pair of eyes and another brain working on the same case before you make any decisions about how to proceed.
MUSC researchers, led by Dr. Nancy DeMore, studied a wide variety of breast cancer cases in South Carolina. They found that nearly half of the 70 women who requested a second opinion ended up with a different diagnosis than their original doctor gave them. Roughly 20 percent of the time, the second doctor interpreted the pathology data differently, resulting in a different plan. Another 20 percent of the time, the second doctor identified a new cancer that the patient was not previously aware of. In these situations, the patients got new information to work with to help them make the best decision.
The team also found that doctors are generally very receptive to the idea of a second opinion. Everyone makes mistakes after all, and a second opinion means a better chance of catching those mistakes, rare though they may be. However, many patients continue to believe that their doctor may feel hurt or angry if their patients request to be referred to another doctor to get a second opinion.
“That’s a stigma that will hopefully fade over time because it’s your health,” says Dr. Denise Garcia, a general surgery resident at MUSC who wrote the study. “If you don’t feel bad trying on a couple of different pairs of shoes or checking out a different car dealer, why wouldn’t you have the same level of certainty and curiosity about what else is out there with your own health, which is even more important?”
Second opinions are particularly important if the doctor you’re seeing is not a specialist in the area of treatment. Doctors who work with all types of patients and all types of health problems do their best to know everything, but they simply don’t have the time and energy to devote to really getting to know a specific kind of illness, like breast cancer, that has an ever-changing body of research and an evolving array of treatment options.
“If you’re not (a patient) in a specialized cancer center, seeking out a … second opinion could be a good idea,” Dr. DeMore says. “I think most physicians are very appreciative of having a second look.”
Even if your new doctor doesn’t give you a different diagnosis or catch something the previous doctor missed, he or she may be able to offer you different treatment options, tips for getting through treatment, important tidbits of information, or comforting words. And at the very least, a second opinion that is the same as the first is extra reassurance that you have the right diagnosis and the right treatment.
Nonetheless, it can be intimidating to request a second opinion. For those who are nervous, we recommend being direct with your doctor. Simply tell him or her that you’d like to meet with a specialist to make sure you’ve got all the information you can get your hands on to be able to make an informed decision. Most of them are very understanding, and if your doctor isn’t, then he or she is probably not the right doctor for you anyway. After all, this is your health we’re talking about! It’s important!
Of course, a second opinion won’t always yield a different diagnosis or more helpful information. The researchers hope further studies will help pinpoint when getting another doctor involved will be most helpful and when it’s unlikely to be of use. This information could help future patients avoid spending unnecessary time, money, and effort on seeing another doctor while ensuring that those who could benefit from a second opinion get one.
But for now, a second opinion is the safest option for most patients, especially those who are not seeing a specialized doctor for their condition. The bottom line is that a second opinion never hurts, and it could even save your life. You only get one body, and you deserve the best possible care for it.
Elizabeth Nelson is a wordsmith, an alumna of Aquinas College in Grand Rapids, a four-leaf-clover finder, and a grammar connoisseur. She has lived in west Michigan since age four but loves to travel to new (and old) places. In her free time, she. . . wait, what’s free time?