Breast Cancer Specialists: Who They Are and What They Do

Here's how to find a qualified doctor that you feel comfortable with

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer, finding a breast cancer specialist is an important step in taking charge of your treatment plan. You won’t need just one breast cancer doctor, but an entire treatment team that involves oncologists (cancer doctors), nurses, and social workers.

Finding a team that you trust and feel comfortable with is crucial. Remember, you are entitled to feel valued, respected, and informed during your breast cancer treatment. This article will discuss the types of specialists you may have on your team, and how to choose doctors who will best meet your needs throughout your cancer journey.

Doctor comforting a patient during a mammogram


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Types of Breast Cancer Specialists 

There’s no specific term for breast cancer specialists. However, if you have breast cancer, you’ll likely need a surgical oncologist, a surgeon who can operate on the tumor in your breast and remove it. 

Although you might see a doctor who only treats breast cancer patients, it’s more likely that you’ll have a team of cancer doctors, all of whom see people with other types of cancer, too. It’s a good idea to look for a doctor that has experience treating breast cancer, but you don’t need someone who only treats breast cancer. 

 Your team of care providers will likely include:

  • A surgical oncologist: This doctor oversees treatments that involve surgery. They play a very important role in your treatment.
  • A medical oncologist: This doctor oversees treating your cancer with medications like immunotherapy and chemotherapy. They’re often at the forefront of your care. 
  • A radiation oncologist: This doctor uses radiation to treat breast cancer that is more advanced. If your cancer is caught early, you may not need a radiation oncologist. 
  • A plastic surgeon: If you opt for a mastectomy, you may also have a plastic surgeon who specializes in breast reconstruction on your team
  • Fertility specialist: If you are of childbearing age, you may also have a fertility doctor on your team to discuss options to preserve your chances of future pregnancy.

In addition to the doctors, your breast specialist team will likely include oncology nurses and a social worker or caseworker. These people tend to your day-to-day needs and help look after your mental and emotional health during treatment. 

 Types of Treatment 

The type of treatment that you pursue will determine what type of breast cancer specialists you need. Although cancer treatment is highly individualized, the treatment for breast cancer usually follows this path:

  • Surgery to remove the tumor and possibly other affected areas
  • Targeted therapies including immunotherapy, antibody therapy, and hormone-blocking therapy based on the advice of your doctor and an analysis of your tumor
  • Chemotherapy to kill any remaining cancer cells and possibly radiation as well, based on your doctor's recommendation

Finding the Best Team 

Choosing your team of breast cancer specialists can feel like an overwhelming responsibility. But as you consult with potential doctors and discuss your treatment options, keep in mind that while certifications and outcomes are highly important, finding a team that you really click with and feel heard by should also be prioritized.

Choosing Your Doctors

Your treatment team should consist of doctors who are board certified in oncology. This means that they have training and expertise in cancer treatment. Most major hospitals have board-certified oncologists on staff, but to be sure, you can double-check the online directory of the American Board of Medical Specialties, which regulates certification. 

In addition to making sure that your doctors are board certified, you should check their history of malpractice suits. Your state may have an online malpractice directory. This will give you an idea of whether the doctor has been sued in the past.

Having had a malpractice settlement isn’t necessarily something that should disqualify a doctor, but it can factor into your decision. Don’t be afraid to ask your potential doctor about their malpractice history. 

Finally, look for doctors who make you feel respected and safe when you're interviewing them. You should feel comfortable asking questions about your cancer diagnosis and treatment options and bringing up any concerns or fears. Everyone has different ways of communicating, and it's important that you and your doctor can communicate effectively.

If you know other people who have had breast cancer, or if you join a breast cancer support group, asking your peers for recommendations of doctors they liked and had good experiences with can be a good starting point in your search.

Finding a Treatment Hospital

Often, it is helpful to start your search by considering the hospitals in your area rather than looking for a specific doctor. Your hospital search will be limited by geography, but if you have multiple hospitals near you, it can be worthwhile to drive a bit farther to a hospital that has a larger breast cancer treatment program. 

The National Cancer Institute (NCI) maintains a list of NCI-Designated Cancer Centers that offer outstanding treatment. If possible, try to be treated at one of these hospitals, which are at the forefront of cancer research and treatment. Some research suggests that patients treated at such comprehensive care facilities have slightly better survival outcomes than those treated in non-NCI-designated treatment centers.

If there’s not a Cancer Center near you, consider a teaching hospital. These university-affiliated hospitals offer the most up-to-date treatment options and may run clinical trials. Many community hospitals also provide excellent breast cancer treatment. 

Getting a Second Opinion

When you get a breast cancer diagnosis, it's natural to want to get started with treatment as soon as possible. But in some cases, it can be worthwhile to take the time to seek a second opinion. This means asking another breast cancer specialist or specialist team to look over your medical record and test results and offer their opinion on your diagnosis and best treatment options.

It can feel awkward asking your original doctor that you want a second opinion, but know that seeking a second opinion is very common in breast cancer care, especially as more treatment options have become available. In fact, some insurance companies require a second opinion before proceeding with treatment.

Your doctor should be understanding if you do ask for a second opinion and likely will be able to refer you to a colleague he or she respects. While most people seek a second opinion before starting a course of treatment, remember that you can also request a second opinion at any point in your care if you’re unsure or don’t feel comfortable with how your doctor is treating you.

 Insurance 

When deciding on your healthcare team, it's important to talk to your insurance provider about which doctors and treatment centers are covered in your provider network and what out-of-pocket costs you may have.

Your health insurance representative and/or a hospital social worker should be able to offer guidance on navigating insurance claims, including how your insurance will cover second opinions. In some cases, insurance companies require second opinions.

In other cases, you’ll have to request a second opinion and maybe even get a referral from your doctor. Figuring out the requirements of your insurance plan can help you avoid stressful unexpected bills.  

A Word From Verywell

 Choosing a breast cancer specialist can feel like a lot of pressure, but taking your search one step at a time can make the process feel less overwhelming and improve your confidence in your treatment plan. Keep in mind that while credentials and qualifications are important, don’t underestimate the significance of your comfort level with your cancer treatment team.

Having doctors and nurses that you click with can make treatment more bearable. If at any point you’re not comfortable with how your cancer treatment is going, don’t hesitate to seek a second opinion.

You might consider getting a trusted friend or family member involved in this process to help advocate for you and offer support and guidance as you make these tough decisions. Finding a support group in your community may also be a good way to meet a network of survivors and fellow patients who can offer their own doctor recommendations and additional shoulders to lean on throughout treatment.

Frequently Asked Questions

 

What is a breast cancer doctor called?

A breast cancer doctor is called an oncologist. Oncologists who only work with breast cancer patients are rare. More often, you’ll work with an oncologist who treats breast cancer and other types of cancer. It’s a good idea to ask your prospective doctor how many patients with breast cancer they treat each year. 

Is it OK to tell your breast cancer doctor you want a second opinion?

Yes, it is OK to ask your breast cancer doctor for a second opinion. In fact, they’re likely expecting you to. Doctors expect patients to get a second opinion before starting treatment. You can also get a second opinion at any point during your treatment. Although you might feel awkward asking for a second opinion, it’s important that you feel you are making the best possible treatment decisions for your health. A second opinion can help increase your confidence in your treatment plan. 

What should you consider when searching for a breast cancer specialist?

When you’re looking for a breast cancer specialist, it’s a good idea to connect with a doctor who treats people with breast cancer often. Searching for an NCI-Designated Cancer Center in your area is a good place to start. You should also look for a board-certified oncologist, which means that the doctor has additional training in treating cancer. 

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4 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Breast Cancer Foundation. Choosing your doctor.

  2. National Cancer Institute. NCI-designated cancer centers. Updated June 24, 2019.

  3. Wolfson JA, Sun CL, Wyatt LP, Hurria A, Bhatia S. Impact of care at comprehensive cancer centers on outcome: Results from a population-based studyCancer. 2015;121(21):3885-3893. doi:10.1002/cncr.29576

  4. Breastcancer.org. Getting a second opinion. Updated April 7, 2016.