Second opinion: A cancer surgeon shares his perspective and advice

July 23, 2014 | by

Diagnostic errors are far from uncommon. In fact, a recent study found that they affect about 12 million people, or 1 in 20 patients,  in the U.S. each year.

medical chart and second opinions

Diagnosed with cancer? Get a second opinion at an expert research and treatment center like City of Hope. Clayton Lau, M.D., explains why it could save your life.

With cancer, those errors in diagnosis can have a profound impact. A missed or delayed diagnosis can make the disease that much harder to treat, as the Agency for Healthcare Quality and Research recently noted in calling attention to the diagnostic errors research.

This means that patients who've been diagnosed with cancer shouldn't always assume that either the diagnosis or their options are precisely what they've been told. Sometimes a cancer has progressed more than the diagnostic tests suggest; sometimes it's progressed less. And sometimes the diagnosis is completely off-base.

Clayton S. Lau, M.D., associate clinical professor and an expert in testicular cancer surgery at City of Hope, explains the difference that second opinions can make in getting a proper cancer diagnosis and care.

How significant is a second opinion?

Second opinions are very important for any patient who has been diagnosed with cancer. The disease is one of the most life-changing events for individuals and their families. Already, people shop around for material items like TVs and cars, so they should do the same for more important issues like general health and cancer. Second opinions are especially crucial for people with aggressive or complex cancers that may require multimodal (different types of) therapy and access to clinical trials. A research-based cancer center like City of Hope is an ideal place for these types of patients.

Even though medicine has made huge advances over the past several years, second opinions are not done as much as they should be. Because medicine is still paternalistic and many patients just trust their doctor, for them, whatever their doctor says goes.

Unfortunately, the treating physicians and their hospitals  may not follow evidence-based medicine or there may be a diagnostic error with tumor type or the aggressiveness (grade) of the tumor. Most of the time, the treatment recommendations and treatments themselves are correct, but sometimes they can be incorrect, or there may be other options that these patients to which patients are never exposed.

City of Hope's Clayton Lau

Surgeon Clayton Lau offers some advice on the importance of, and how to get, a second opinion.

For example, at City of Hope, I see about 20 to 30 second opinion patients per month. When a patient comes to me for a second opinion, I make sure we confirm the tissue diagnosis with our pathologist and ensure that the appropriate imaging studies have been done and interpreted correctly.

About once or twice a month, I get a second-opinion patient who was diagnosed with a specific cancer that is actually less or more aggressive than anticipated. This discovery will definitely alter treatment and the patient's prognosis. Taking that next step in getting a second opinion can make a huge difference.

What makes a cancer center like City of Hope the place to go for a second opinion?

City of Hope is one of only 41 comprehensive cancer centers in the nation, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We practice evidence-based medicine and set standards and guidelines for cancer treatment. We conduct innovative basic and clinical research that is then put into practice for cancer care and treatment. At City of Hope, it is our job to keep up – to be on the front lines of groundbreaking research and the latest cancer treatments.

We specialize in multimodal therapy, with the latest technologies and medications for advanced cancer. Also, at City of Hope, we are greatly experienced in treating localized and locally advanced cancers with robotic surgery.

The primary care doctors are probably the best advocates for patients and have the patient’s best interest in mind in wanting them to get the best care they need. They will sometimes direct patients on where to seek a second opinion, but remember that it is every patient’s right to ask for one.

What advice would you recommend to someone considering a second opinion?

  1. Learn about your disease. What it is all about? The severity? The prognosis and options? It's very important to educate yourself. Understanding the basics and history of the disease as well as cancer staging is valuable.
  2. If your disease is complex or aggressive and you have already been through standard therapies, ask your doctor if there are any clinical trials for which you can be considered.
  3. Ask if your case will be discussed with other specialists. At City of Hope, cases are reviewed at multidisciplinary tumor boards, with several specialists of different types reviewing a patient’s case.
  4. Besides learning about your cancer care options, take the time to research your treating physician or physicians and the facility with which they're associated.
  5. You have every right to get a second opinion. Be your own advocate.

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Learn more about becoming a patient or getting a second opinion at City of Hope by visiting us online or by calling 800-826-HOPE (4673). Our staff will explain what previous medical records we'll need for your first appointment and help you determine, before you come in, whether or not your insurance will pay for the appointment.