Could a Second Opinion Save Your Life?

by Jane Ashley

We, as cancer patients, are often advised to get a second opinion. Yet, many of us don’t understand exactly what a second opinion is, how to get a second opinion and how a second opinion might benefit us. Second opinions are particularly important when we are first diagnosed or when our cancer recurs.

Confirm Your Diagnosis

Both my surgeon and my oncologist told me that if I ever had any questions about if a treatment or procedure was right for me that I shouldn’t hesitate to get a second opinion. They assured me that my seeking another opinion wouldn’t offend them. They confirmed an important fact that most of us realize. The treatments for cancer require us to have an extraordinary amount of faith and trust in our medical team because the procedures and drugs sound so scary. Having a second opinion helps us find courage to embark on the recommended treatment.

What is a second opinion?

Simply put, a second opinion is obtaining another physician’s recommended treatment plan. They will review our diagnostic tests and imaging scans and provide us with their opinion of how to proceed.

A second opinion helps a patient gain confidence in their treatment plan. Some patients worry that they need to begin treatment ASAP. Unless a patient has a very aggressive cancer, there is sufficient time to obtain a second opinion so that you can move forward with confidence.
It’s best to get a second opinion from a larger, teaching hospital or National Cancer Institute-designated hospital. These facilities treat large volumes of cancer patients and are more likely to offer cutting-edge treatments.

Why is a second opinion important?

First and foremost, a second opinion confirms your diagnosis — not only that you have a particular type of cancer but the second opinion also provides confirmation of the stage of your cancer and other vital details, including the type of cell and the extent your cancer may have spread.
Your second opinion may open new options. If you have a solid tumor kind of cancer (colorectal or lung, for example), surgery might offer a potential cure or long-term remission period. But if your oncologist tells you that you are not a candidate for surgery, you should probably seek a second opinion from a skilled oncology surgeon who specializes in your particular kind of cancer. Specialty surgeons offer the latest surgical procedures to remove tumors that other medical personnel may deem not operable. 

Could A Second Opinion Save Your Life

Newer treatments, including targeted therapy and immunotherapy , require additional blood tests. These blood tests determine if you have certain mutations or proteins that suggest that a new therapy might work for you.

Your second opinion may uncover discrepancies in the interpretation of your staging scans. Having a new set of eyes review your scans can be life-saving. A second opinion may discover an overlooked mass in a distant part of your body, suggesting your cancer has spread. In my case, the oncologist to whom I was referred looked at my staging scans and disagreed with the interpretation — she believed that I had just one cancerous nodule in my lung (not several nodules as the first radiologist believed) — so despite the fact that I was Stage IV, she treated me aggressively, with curative intent.

MD Anderson reviewed some 2,700 patient cases and found that 25 percent had discrepancies between the original pathologist’s report and MD Anderson’s opinion. 

 If you have a rare cancer or a cancer known to be aggressive, a second opinion from a high-volume cancer treatment facility will probably offer you more treatment options.

When it comes to cancer, getting the most effective treatment the first time is a patient’s best way to ensure treatment success.

Where and how to get a second opinion?

Most insurance companies pay for the cost of a second opinion. Call your insurance company and check. Some insurance companies require a second opinion before beginning treatment.

Decide on where you want to go to get your second opinion. Many larger cancer centers offer online second opinions where your medical records and scans are forwarded — don’t let living in a rural area discourage you from getting a second opinion. The cancer center where you live can administer chemotherapy or radiation locally by working with your second opinion physician (this is not unusual so don’t be afraid to ask).

Most doctors are accustomed to their patients requesting second opinions and will send your medical records for you. The larger facilities may have a second opinion coordinator to ensure that they have the medical records they need.

So now what?

What do you do when your second opinion is different from your first treatment plan? 

Ask Questions Get Answers


Ask why. Patients and family members must learn to be proactive and ask questions. Ask the second opinion physician why they recommend a different treatment plan. Ask why their plan is a better choice? Ask which part of your test results influenced their decision. Ask which treatment guidelines they used to come to their conclusion. Ask for a written report so that you won’t forget the exact details of the suggested treatment plan.
Ask these same questions to your doctor at home. Once you’ve heard your first doctor’s reasoning, ask if it would be possible for the two of them to discuss your case.
Tie-breaker opinion. Because having the best possible treatment first is so critical, you and your family may have to seek a third opinion from another specialist in the area where the opinions differ. If the opinion varies about which chemotherapy drug to use or whether to have chemo before surgery, consult with another oncologist. If there is disagreement about the use of radiation, consult with another radiation oncologist. If there is disagreement about a pathology report, get another opinion from another pathologist.

Every patient, whether they seek a second opinion or not, should learn more about the kind of cancer they have and the treatment options. The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN.org) is an alliance of 28 prominent cancer centers in the U.S. who share their treatment experiences and results to develop treatment guidelines for physicians and patients — their Treatment Guidelines are free to both physicians and patients. You can download your free guideline here.

To learn more about the NCCN and their guidelines, refer to our blog post about the NCCN. Many WhatNext members credit their survival to getting a second opinion. A second opinion could save your life.

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