Choosing Where to Get Cancer Treatment

SVMC041516027VernonLinacforWebWe all hope that 2017 will be filled with health and happiness. Based on experience, however, we know that there is a small likelihood that we or someone we love will be diagnosed with cancer. Although cancer is still a very serious disease, I am grateful to have seen improvements in screening and treatment that turn many cases of cancer into a short bumpy stint in an otherwise long and healthy life.

Regardless of the seriousness of the cancer, all patients must make a decision regarding where to receive treatment. Below are some of the considerations you might review before making your decision.

Your Priorities Everyone handles serious diagnoses like cancer differently. Depending on the individual, the list of considerations below could be prioritized from the top down or the bottom up. There is no wrong way. As long as you are choosing based on the factors that are most important to you, you are on the right track.

Recommendations For many patients, personal recommendations of family and friends make the largest impact. If a loved one had a successful outcome and built great relationships with staff at a particular center, you may be persuaded to get treatment there as well.

Many also rely heavily on recommendations from their primary care provider. Through their work, primary care doctors, nurse practitioners, and physician assistants relate with specialists of all kinds and have a sense of which are most responsive and have the best reputations for outcomes.

Treatments Offered Not all cancer centers offer treatments for all types of cancer. In most cases, the doctors—who understand the capabilities of their equipment and the limitations of their experience—will automatically refer cases they are not equipped to handle to the closest or best facility that can. Even some relatively small centers offer advanced options like clinical trials and genetic counseling. If those options interest you, you should ask to learn more.

The Cancer Center Staff When choosing an oncologist, or a doctor who specializes in the treatment of cancer, you will likely want to know that he or she is board certified. This means that he or she has demonstrated exceptional expertise in the area of cancer treatment. Certification involves a rigorous process of testing and peer evaluation that is designed and administered by specialists in the specific area of medicine.

You will also likely want to ask how long the doctor has been practicing and how often they treat cases similar to yours. Finally, be sure to find out who you call if you have a question and get an idea of how long it will likely take to get a response. You should be satisfied by the answers to both of those questions.

Almost as important as the experience of your cancer doctor is the skill and demeanor of the nurses, lab technicians, front desk attendants, and others working to provide your care. In your first interactions with them you should feel they are treating you as an individual and are tuned in to your specific needs.

The Facility and Technology At a minimum, the building where you go to receive cancer care should be bright, clean, and friendly. You should notice many aspects of the place designed to make patients comfortable. You can also ask to know whether the center is accredited and participates in any quality programs. One of the most prestigious is the American College of Surgeons Commission on Cancer. If the center you are visiting has this accreditation, you can be sure that they receive intense scrutiny regarding their practices and performance.

Radiation treatment of cancer, especially, involves a lot of specialized technological equipment. Although most equipment in use will treat cancer with similar outcomes, some technologies made available in just the last few years can shorten treatment times dramatically and reduce side effects. Don’t be afraid to ask how old the cancer treatment technology is and what advances have been made since the equipment was acquired.

Cost One of the most important considerations to some is cost. Be sure to know whether or not your insurance is accepted and about how much your visits will cost. If you are uncertain about your ability to pay for care or other expenses that arise as a result of treatment, ask for help. Financial counselors are often able to access assistance and relieve worry. In addition, some centers are lucky to have active charity groups whose fundraising efforts work to alleviate the financial burdens of cancer treatment.

Proximity If you live between two cancer centers, more or less equal, you may consider the distance that it takes to travel there and back. Some treatments, like radiation treatment, for instance, require you to physically go to the center every week day for several weeks. Even a 10-mile per trip difference can add up—in gas, mileage, and time.

Regardless of where you choose to get cancer care, I hope you find an experienced and warm-hearted staff who take your thoughts and feelings into account. And, of course, I hope that you regain your health and go on to live many happy years.

Matthew Vernon, MD, is radiation oncologist and medical director of the Cancer Center at SVMC. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care. For more articles like this one, visit