Does the Gender of Your Oncologist Matter?


After two of my oncologists retired, I had to search for the next one.

In the last 12 months, two important oncologists have disappeared from my life. The truth is, they both retired to spend more time with their young children.

I think it's a wonderful and generous move by both of them, and though I miss the advice and care, this experience has left me with a deep appreciation of knowing and trusting someone so much that we are willing to literally put our lives in their hands.

Do you have full faith in your oncologist who, along with your approval, suggests life-changing and perhaps life-saving choices in your ongoing quest to survive cancer? I do, or at least I did with these two, and here's why.

First and foremost, both of them were women and highly skilled professional care givers who came into my life after a thorough search of the possible female candidates in Arizona, my state of residence.

After my initial diagnosis of male breast cancer in 2014, I was referred to an oncologist by my surgeon. I lived in Hawaii at the time. Upon questioning the recommendations that were made for me, he acknowledged that his advice for the chemotherapy he endorsed was identical to the drug protocol he prescribed for his female breast cancer patients. While I knew absolutely nothing about breast cancer then, I was aware of an "alarm" of sorts that rang loudly in the intuitive part of my brain. This didn't make sense to me. After all, men and women are different, aren't we?

I booked a flight to my hometown of San Diego to obtain a second opinion from a well-respected oncologist, and he gave me similar advice.

I put those suggested treatments on hold for a while as I began my search for a female oncologist who I imagined might offer some innovative, unconventional and imaginative treatment for a cancer that was largely overlooked, and certainly misunderstood. Fast-forward to 2018 and the evidence is strong that men and women react differently to chemotherapy drugs.

I found her in Arizona and the two of us worked together for three years. After she retired, I was informed that her replacement had been hired but would not be joining the staff until eight months later. I made the decision to wait. Since the day of my diagnosis I've had to make a number of choices regarding my ongoing dance with cancer, some of which I believed could have a direct effect on the remaining years of my life. And when faced with the decision to enlist the support of men or women in this process, I have invariably chosen the assistance of women. The bigger question I have to ask is: Does gender really matter when choosing a doctor?

My instinct tells me that the difference boils down to how men and women process information, ask questions and listen to us. Indeed, some studies have found meaningful differences in how women and men practice medicine. Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health analyzed a number of studies that focused on how doctors communicate. They found that female primary care doctors simply spent more time listening to patients than did their male colleagues. But listening comes with a cost. Doctors who were women spent, on average, two extra minutes, or about 10 percent more time per visit, creating scheduling delays and putting them an hour or more behind their male colleagues by the end of the day.

Dr. Nieca Goldberg, a cardiologist whose book "Women Are Not Small Men" writes that the research should not be used to disparage male doctors, but should instead empower patients to find doctors who listen.

It's important to add that my choice in waiting for the right oncologist had nothing to do with these findings since I was unaware of them until recently. It was strictly a matter of my own intuition, my own beliefs and my own survival plan. Today I'm waiting for my third oncologist to join my medical team. I have no idea who that will be or when she will arrive, but I'm hopeful for a long and successful relationship and confident that my choices so far have been the right ones for my own health and healing.

So, what have I learned while searching for my new oncologists?

I've learned to ask questions, lots of questions when interviewing my doctors. I've learned to listen to my intuitive voice and "gut feelings" that I have about the staff and facilities of the medical institutions who serve me. And I've learned to make every oncology choice as though my life depends on it.

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