I trusted my oncology team with my life, so it was important that I found doctors I was comfortable with.
I highly encourage newly diagnosed patients with cancer to consider getting a second opinion before rushing ahead with the first proposed plan of treatment.
It may feel exhausting— I’ve been there; back in 2016 when I was first diagnosed with osteosarcoma, a rare and aggressive bone cancer, I was terrified and overwhelmed. When anxiety is high, our ability to process goes down, and I wanted nothing more than the smart, capable expert (the first doctor I met) to make my nightmare go away as soon as possible. But getting a second opinion turned out to be one of the best decisions I've ever made.
Honestly, I’m not sure I would have even gotten a second opinion had it not been for the way events transpired. I had been referred to a top New York City surgeon by the doctor who initially sent me out for an MRI (indicating a large bump by my right thigh was a tumor). The surgeon and this doctor were friends, and he came with a glowing recommendation. Also, the hospital location where the surgeon worked was nearby, maybe a 15-minute drive. I liked that.
I enjoyed meeting him. He was in his 40s, an age where I hoped meant he came seasoned while still on top of the latest trends. We had a pleasant enough conversation as he went through my surgical options. I may have just moved forward right there, it being the path of least resistance and all.
Fortunately, things changed after that. First the hospital botched the biopsy results, mistakenly telling me that my disease was low grade — meaning I wouldn’t need chemo, just surgery — until I showed up at the next meeting and was introduced to an oncologist. They admitted their mistake, explained I would need chemo and that this was the man who’d be leading the way.
I didn’t like the oncologist’s personality from the start. He forced me to watch a slideshow on the evolution of chemotherapy, which was the last thing I felt like doing. I asked him if we could hold off and if he could just share with me the bare minimum of what I needed to know about next steps (while secretly hoping he would assure me everything would be OK, which never happened). Instead, he bulldozed over me, continuing with his presentation.
Personality aside, what really turned me off was how he pressured my wife and I to start chemo immediately without the least bit of regard for our longer-term future. Our meeting was on a Friday and he was pushing to start Monday morning. I certainly appreciated the situation’s urgency, but when my wife paused to ask if we should look into freezing my sperm first, he actually told us that wasn’t necessary and the chemo wouldn’t affect that.
Something just felt off, and we decided to get that second opinion.
My parents helped us research, and we landed on another top-rated New York City hospital. I was lucky that they also sourced the specific surgeon I should request. This guy was highly regarded as one of, if not the best, in his field. (Good thing to know, by the way: if you don’t come to the table asking for a surgeon, the hospital will assign you with someone of their choice who may not be as good; you don’t get to interview a few and choose. At least in my experience that was the case, and it may not be that easy to change if you don’t hit it off.)
Unfortunately, being that the surgeon I wanted was such a rockstar, his calendar was all booked up. This was the first time that having a rare cancer played in my favor — he was intrigued with my case and actually chose to work with me.
On our first meeting I loved the guy from the start. He was friendly and extremely knowledgeable. In fact, when he broke down my options, he offered an innovative approach using a customized rod (only a few were constructed each year) that would be much higher quality and more durable than any of the options the prior surgeon recommended. I quickly realized this was the surgeon I wanted in my corner.
Then, further solidifying my decision, when I met the oncologist of this second hospital, the first thing he said was to absolutely freeze my sperm because chemo would definitely cause damage and it would be well worth the brief delay. He also expressed that while treatment would be brutal, I was going to live. (I fed off that confidence).
At that point, I let the original hospital know I was going in a different direction. I never spoke to their oncologist but when I caught up with the surgeon, I mentioned the innovative technique proposed at my second appointment, and all he responded was “Oh yeah, that could work too.”
The thing is, as the patient, I don’t want to be coming to the table with the best ideas. I want the expert to be on top of their craft. I’m trusting these people with my life.
It was an easy call from there, and ultimately, that’s why I recommend patients consider getting a second opinion, even though the process can be mentally, physically and emotionally draining, the bottom line is that you could be leaving extreme value on the table.
When we’re talking matters of life or death that’s a risk I wouldn’t want to take.
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