After a Cancer Diagnosis, Learn Your Options

Health Insurance

By Bonnie Sheeren

Learn more about Bonnie on NerdWallet’s Ask an Advisor

Following the tragic news reports about a Michigan doctor who put patients through unnecessary and potentially lethal cancer treatments in order to collect millions in fraudulent billings, it’s more crucial than ever for us to educate ourselves to avoid receiving the wrong type of health care. More important, understanding how this could have happened and how to find answers will go a long way toward helping prevent this scenario from occurring again.

The doctor in the Michigan case knew he was providing inappropriate care. In other instances, however, a cancer misdiagnosis can simply be an error. That mistake can then be compounded by three factors on the part of the patient, leading to a rush toward inappropriate care and extra expense:

  1. The patient hears the word “cancer” and becomes overwhelmed by fear and anxiety.
  2. Panic sets in, and the patient accepts whatever he or she is told by the doctor.
  3. Confusion engulfs the patient — who may not realize that there is time to step back, get second or third opinions and research the treatment options.

A cancer diagnosis doesn’t usually require emergency care, so most cancer cases should be viewed in terms of long-range treatment plans. Stepping back and taking a deep breath to stave off the fear, panic and confusion will probably bring better results. Second and even third opinions are the best way to discover all options when it comes to a correct cancer diagnosis.

The optimal way to get all the facts needed for intelligent decision-making is to request the pathology slides from the biopsy that was used to determine the original diagnosis. Any patient can have the pathology slides from the biopsy examined at an accredited cancer center, since those cellular tissues are preserved in paraffin wax, which can easily be shipped to experts across the country. In addition, more extensive, complex tests can be performed at such facilities, which might open up the possibility of unique or innovative treatments.

Also, all diagnostic radiology scans are now digitized and can be sent across the country for more opinions by specialists who have seen many, many cases and variations of even rare cancers. Opinions from these experts would be invaluable in double- or triple-checking a new diagnosis

Yet another option would be to request a “tumor board,” which is a multidisciplinary, hospital-based group that gathers to discuss a patient’s case. Many patients don’t know that these boards exist and don’t know to ask to access them. All aspects of the test results are discussed openly, and usually a physical exam is included as well. This is confirmation of the old adage that many heads are better than one. Hearing from all these experts at once can help patients see their options from all angles.

Most important, by getting a solid, coordinated diagnosis using these strategies, it might be possible to pursue clinical trials that might not be available after a patient begins a standard course of treatment. Many clinical trials require that the patients be “treatment naïve,” meaning that no other course of care has begun. Quickly starting chemotherapy or radiotherapy might close off access to some of these new experimental clinical trials — once again limiting your options.

Cancer treatments can be lifesaving, but they have to be used judiciously as there are risks associated with them. Do your research, gather knowledge and practice patience during your diagnostic period. This will help you make the best decisions to get the care you want and need.