How Long Should a Cancer Survivor Keep Seeing Their Oncologist?

A person with cancer may naturally assume an oncologist will follow them throughout the course of treatment, but when that person survives for many years, things can rapidly change.

When first diagnosed with breast cancer, I naively thought I’d have the same doctor throughout the rest of my lifetime, but that wasn’t the case.

About a year after being under the care of the same doctor, I noticed our relationship began to change. He’d recommended I add aromatase inhibitors to my daily regimen. Following his advice, I tried one and had negative results. Reporting those to his office, another was recommended. I tried it, too, and had even worse results.

After three attempts at taking various medications, I decided to discontinue the anti-hormone therapy. When I shared the decision with my oncologist, his attitude toward me changed. At subsequent appointments, I found he was adamant about my taking the medication and was told if I didn’t choose to comply, I needed to find a new doctor.

It didn’t take long to find a new oncologist, and for the past five years, I’ve been with the same doctor. I was pleased when he asked my opinion as we worked together to develop a care plan. He seemed to value my input and said, “It’s your body. You should have the ultimate say in what happens to it.”

It gave me great comfort to know we were a team working toward my long-term survival. But earlier this year, unbeknownst to me, that doctor moved away. I was unaware of his move until one day, several months later, I received a notification through email alerting me to the fact that I had an appointment with a provider I’d never met.

Contacting their office, I expressed my concern. They apologized and I decided to give the new doctor a chance. I thought he must be a good doctor if he was on staff at the cancer treatment center. I decided to check him out before the visit. Online, I read raving reviews stating that he was a good listener and made patients feel comfortable. Although the reviews seemed to indicate he was a trustworthy physician, I was nervous. This gentleman knew nothing about me other than information he may have gleaned from the last oncologist’s notes. I couldn’t help but wonder how much time he’d have to peruse that information before my appointment.

Walking into the facility, I was pleased to find the nursing staff had stayed the same. I’d become friends with many of them over the past few years. When it was time to go into the exam room, I felt my heartbeat start to speed up. I didn’t know why I was so hesitant. Normally, I was a very optimistic person, but for some reason, I didn’t have a good feeling about meeting the new doctor.

A few minutes after I’d entered the room, I heard a knock on the door and before I had a chance to say, “Come in,” the doctor was opening the door. He did not greet me with any words but stuck out his fist toward me. A few seconds passed before my mind registered why he’d done that. “Oh,” I thought, “he wants me to give him a fist bump,” which I promptly did.

The doctor was brusque and arrogant in both his words and demeanor. I felt uncomfortable and worried. It didn’t feel like he was listening even though he’d asked a series of questions and I’d responded. There were some physical issues I brought to his attention but instead of sitting with me and discussing them, he ignored me, turning to his scribe and said, “Schedule her for an ultrasound, an MRI and a PET scan,” then he walked out of the room. Sitting there with my mouth hanging open, I watched as the scribe followed suit.

I sat on the exam table in my little half gown, which was opened in the front, for a few minutes before figuring out he wasn’t returning. I got dressed and exited the room. Not a single staff member approached to say goodbye or give further instructions. That’s when I made my decision to look for another doctor. I felt I deserved better than that.

How long should a person keep their oncologist? That’s not an easy question to answer.

Upon an initial diagnosis with cancer, a patient usually receives a personalized treatment plan. Often, during the first year, the doctor watches the person closely scheduling visits as frequently as every three months. The following year, depending on the person’s health situation, treatment schedule and other factors, visits may be spread out a little further.

In my case, the second year, I saw the oncologist every six months and that pattern repeated until I’d reached the five-year mark post diagnosis. At that time, I was told I would be seen annually and that’s been the case for the past couple of years.

As a survivor currently doing well, the once-a-year visits have been wonderful. I’ve felt like I was still under the watchful eye of a physician while being able to enjoy life to the fullest, but for some with cancer, this scenario may not be the case.

With advanced breast cancer, some women will need to continue treatments like chemotherapy, radiation or hormone therapy in order to keep cancer at bay. These treatments may produce bothersome side effects that require constant communication with a medical professional.

Follow-up care after breast cancer may seem unending, but it’s important to remember, a good oncologist is always on the lookout for evidence of a possible recurrence. That's why it’s important to find an oncologist with which you feel comfortable.

Though my visit to the assigned oncologist didn’t go well, I knew I didn’t have to continue care with him. I did my homework and found other oncologists close to home. There were several specializing in breast cancer care and I found one with glowing credentials. After reading online reviews and talking with staff in his office, I felt confident scheduling an appointment.

It’s not easy being transferred from one doctor to another. Although we have no control over whether a doctor leaves a practice, moves out of town, or finds employment elsewhere, we’re people — not balls that can be bounced around. Relationships with any health care provider are important, but for the person with cancer, it’s vital we feel secure with our doctors.

While a person may assume that they will have the same oncologist during the course of treatment, it may not work out that way. Patients have rights and responsibilities regarding their care and that includes feeling comfortable with their provider. It’s important to weigh all options.

Don’t jump ship just because something doesn’t go your way, but if there’s a legitimate reason to seek help elsewhere, feel free to do it. Your body belongs to you. You have a right to the best health care available.

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