If you have been diagnosed with breast cancer, you have the right to seek a second medical opinion at any point. People diagnosed with cancer may choose to seek a second opinion for many reasons, such as the need for reassurance they’re getting the best possible treatment or to access additional treatment options.
Across multiple scientific studies, when people receiving treatment for any type of cancer seek a second opinion, as many as 50 percent of second doctors provide new or different information than the initial physician. Here are five reasons why you might want to consider a second opinion at some point in your journey with breast cancer.
When you first receive a diagnosis, it’s natural to feel anxious, confused, or surprised or even to question what your doctor has told you. Some people choose to receive a second opinion immediately after receiving abnormal test results. Getting confirmation from a separate provider may help to relieve some of the anxiety at this early phase.
Studies have shown that second opinions at this early point in time can lead to changes in the diagnosis or care plan. In a study of people who received an abnormal mammogram test result, 27 percent were given different findings from their second radiologist compared to their first doctor. That statistic was even higher in those who have dense breast tissue — about a 36 percent difference. These differences led to both negative and positive findings with further testing. For example, 8 percent of people were able to avoid unnecessary treatment, while 2.5 percent had additional cancer detected.
Differences in details about breast cancer type can also be significant in deciding on a treatment plan. For example, when HER2 status is incorrect — which it’s found to be in about 8 percent of people who seek a second opinion — it can make treatment less effective or even ineffective.
“I received a call this evening from the oncologist where I received my second opinion,” reported one member of MyBCTeam. “The diagnosis is being changed from invasive ductal to secretory carcinoma of the breast. The oncologist says it’s a good prognosis. He said to stop chemotherapy until further notice.”
You may also want to seek a second opinion on your diagnosis if you receive a rare breast cancer diagnosis, such as inflammatory breast cancer or Paget’s disease. In this case, your doctor may even recommend that you seek a second opinion from a specialist who focuses on that type of breast cancer. As one MyBCTeam member wrote, “When they tell you to get a second opinion, that’s a good doctor.”
However, if you have an aggressive form of cancer, it may be best to proceed with timely treatment rather than delay it to receive a second opinion.
Testing for breast cancer can be a painful, expensive, and sometimes traumatic experience. Breast or lymph node biopsies are often done to confirm the results of a scan and assess the stage of cancer. However, these procedures are not always necessary. You may want to check in with a new doctor before getting invasive tests.
In one study, about 60 percent of unnecessary biopsies were avoided by a second opinion. This step decreased recovery time and health care costs while increasing patient confidence in their treatment plan.
In other cases, your current doctor may not have requested any additional testing, but you may still want confirmation for peace of mind. By seeking a second opinion, you can make sure that you get all the necessary testing required to provide an accurate diagnosis and recommend effective treatment.
One MyBCTeam member shared: “My second-opinion facility recommended DNA testing for my tumor sample because I’m not responding to any of the treatments, and my cancer continues to spread. My first facility doesn’t offer this testing because it’s new. I’m going to request it, but if it’s denied, then I’ll have it done and pay out of pocket.”
Some people get a second opinion to make sure their cancer was correctly staged and not incorrectly assessed as more or less advanced. Determining the cancer stage and creating a pathology report is a complicated process that relies on imaging, laboratory, and surgical findings. Different medical teams may come to different conclusions about your stage given the same information. Sometimes, test results may not be 100 percent clear, and your oncologist or radiologist may even request that you get a second opinion.
If your early-stage cancer diagnosis is initially benign (noncancerous), second opinions can be critical in preventing false-negative test results. In one study, about 18 percent of people with initial results that a tumor was benign received a cancer diagnosis when they went for a second opinion.
One MyBCTeam member stated: “I trusted my medical team and was treated as they had recommended. I am now stage 4. I sometimes wonder if the outcome would have been different if I had challenged their decisions.”
You may feel scared about the thought of cancer growing and rushed to start the first treatment option offered to you. However, you have the right — and may have the time — to consider your options carefully before starting treatment. In general, a small delay in treatment will not pose much of a risk. You can choose to prioritize the quality of care over getting a quick start. It’s important to ensure that you get the right treatment for your grade, stage, and type of breast cancer—whether that is chemotherapy, radiation, surgery, or targeted medications.
Getting a second opinion may open up new treatment options that were not initially available to you. One 2006 study from the University of Michigan followed people diagnosed with breast cancer who had already received recommendations for treatment options. When they sought second opinions from a board of specialists, more than half were recommended a new treatment plan. Hearing multiple options gives you more freedom to make your own choices and a broader perspective when working with your doctors to decide on the best treatment plan for you.
MyBCTeam members have shared their experiences with second opinions on treatment options:
Sometimes, an insurance company may even request that you receive confirmation from an additional provider before deciding to cover a specific treatment option.
If for no other reason, you may choose to seek a second opinion to increase your confidence in your breast cancer treatment plan. You have the right to find a doctor that you feel confident in and who communicates with you well. After all, you may be working with this doctor for years, so you must be on the same page from the beginning.
Cleveland Clinic provides a helpful list of questions to ask when thinking about where to schedule a second opinion appointment. They recommend considering:
By confirming your diagnosis and treatment plan with a second health care team, you can feel good about taking that next step in your treatment journey. “I definitely recommend a second opinion,” encouraged one MyBCTeam member. “It was well worth the money for my peace of mind.”
Breast cancer treatment is both an art and a science, which is why different doctors’ approaches may lead to different outcomes. You have the right to ask for a second opinion at any point in your cancer journey, from diagnosis to treatment. However, it is up to you to decide if and when to take that step. Consider whether an extra appointment with a new breast cancer specialist will be covered by your health insurance. Talk through the reasons you wish to receive a second opinion. No matter what you choose, you deserve to feel confident about your breast cancer care every step of the way.
MyBCTeam is the online social support network for people with breast cancer. On MyBCTeam, more than 59,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with breast cancer.
Have you ever sought a second opinion? Did the second opinion affect your medical care, and if so, how? Share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below or by posting on MyBCTeam.