Learning that you have cancer can be an overwhelming experience. As you begin researching what steps to take after receiving a cancer diagnosis, you’ll probably hear a lot about getting a second opinion. Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (MSK) provides second opinions for people who have cancer or suspect they might. This includes people who:
- Have not yet been diagnosed with cancer but have an abnormal result.
- Are newly diagnosed with cancer.
- May have already started treatment.
Whether you have been diagnosed with a more common cancer like lung cancer, breast cancer, prostate cancer, or colon cancer, or a more rare type like sarcoma, there is value in getting a second opinion. MSK diagnoses and treats more than 400 kinds of cancer, which means we have doctors who are experts in the specific type of cancer you have.
Even if MSK experts confirm the original diagnosis, they may recommend a different treatment. Sometimes the different treatment is expected to improve your survival from cancer. More often, the treatment is less intense, according to a recent study of MSK patients. A less intense regimen will be just as successful and have fewer side effects.
Here are some things you should know about how to get a second opinion at MSK — and why you should.
1. MSK will help you find the right specialist.
MSK’s Patient Access Service is staffed by oncology nurses and other medical professionals who will help match you with the best doctor for your diagnosis. The first time you call, you will be paired with an expert who is familiar with the type of cancer you have and who can guide you through the first part of the process.
You can contact our care advisors by calling 833-647-7597. This phone line is staffed from to (Eastern time), 7 days a week.
You can also request an appointment online. After you provide some information about yourself and answer some basic questions about your diagnosis, you can schedule a time to speak with one of our care advisors.
“Our team will learn more about you and match you with the right expert for the particular type of cancer you have,” says Gillian Roxas, Director of MSK’s Patient Access Service.
2. Every person with an abnormal result that may be cancer — or who have received any type of cancer diagnosis — can benefit from getting a second opinion.
Second opinions offer different things in different circumstances.
- For cancers that are less common, getting a second opinion may offer more treatment options. If there is no single established standard of care for the type of cancer you have, expert doctors at MSK can make sure that your treatment plan includes the most up-to-date information. Even if you are being seen at another academic center, the clinical trials (research studies) and other treatment options offered at MSK may be different.
- If you have a common cancer with a well-established standard of care, a doctor at MSK may be able to suggest clinical trials or new treatments that may be better than the standard treatment.
- An MSK doctor may have suggestions for complementary or integrative medicine approaches that can help to manage your symptoms.
- Second opinions at MSK also can help you learn more about the genetics of the cancer you have through advanced testing, and whether your family has an inherited risk of developing that cancer.
3. A second opinion can help you get the most effective cancer treatment and avoid being overtreated, so you have a better quality of life.
A precise diagnosis and evaluation of your condition is essential for finding the most effective therapy for you. But an expert second opinion can also help you avoid treatment you may not need — or lessen the intensity of treatment you do need.
A recent study of 120 patients who came to MSK for a second opinion found that even when the original diagnosis was confirmed, the recommended treatment sometimes changed. Usually, the change resulted in less intense treatment. The study was led by MSK surgeon Benjamin R. Roman, MD, and published in 2023 in Cancer Medicine:
- Approximately 1 in 3 patients had a change in treatment, most often to a less intense treatment, offering them a better quality of life.
- Approximately 1 in 5 patients were recommended no surgery or less surgery, compared with what was originally planned for them at another hospital.
- 1 in 10 patients were advised they did not need any treatment and could be observed instead.
In short, a second opinion that reduces treatment intensity can give you a better quality of life with less expense and fewer missed days of work.
4. You may be able to receive a remote second opinion.
Depending on where you live, you may be able to receive a remote second-opinion appointment via telemedicine. “A physical exam is an important part of care, but a telemedicine appointment can sometimes be an option for a first visit as well,” Roxas says.
If you live outside the United States, MSK can help you schedule an in-person appointment or a remote second opinion.
MSK also has regional sites throughout New Jersey and Long Island and in Westchester County. If you choose to receive your treatment at MSK, much of it may be provided at one of these regional sites.
5. Do not worry about offending your current doctor if you get a second opinion at MSK.
A good doctor should appreciate a second opinion, especially if they don’t have expertise in the type of cancer you have, like MSK does. And, it may be helpful for you to hear a different perspective or to hear the same perspective from a different doctor — to be confident that your diagnosis is accurate and well-informed.
6. Getting a second opinion doesn’t always mean you have to change doctors.
Patients often mistakenly believe that they must pick between their current oncologist and MSK, but that’s not necessarily the case. A doctor at MSK may be able to collaborate with your doctor to offer support and help ensure the best outcomes.
7. For some cancers, getting a second opinion from a pathologist or radiologist may be especially important.
For cancers that are less common, confirming the correct diagnosis is vital. Experienced pathologists (doctors who use a microscope to make a diagnosis) can make a difference.
“Sometimes patients just want their pathology slides reviewed to make sure they have the correct diagnosis,” Roxas says. “They can always call the Patient Access Service and we can help route them to the right place. Or, they or their doctors can contact the Department of Pathology directly.”
Having an expert radiologist who has experience in interpreting images for patients with cancer also can make a big difference in determining how advanced the cancer is as well as how you respond to treatment.
Because MSK is focused on cancer, our pathologists and radiologists are skilled at diagnosing more than 400 types of cancers.
8. Even if you have already started treatment, it is not too late to get a second opinion.
If you have already begun treatment somewhere else, a second opinion can inform and refine the course of your care. You may have questions about how well the treatment is working. It can also be valuable to get a second opinion at the end of a course of treatment to figure out next steps for additional treatment or for monitoring for recurrence.
9. Here are 5 key questions to ask to make the most of your second opinion appointment:
- Are you sure my diagnosis is as accurate and precise as is necessary? For many cancers, tests that analyze the DNA and molecular makeup of cells can make a big difference in matching patients with the best therapy. You should ask whether molecular or genetic testing is important for treating the type of cancer you have.
- What is the standard-of-care treatment, and is there more than one option? There may be multiple treatments that offer the same likelihood of success. It’s important to understand the pros and cons of each one, including how the side effects may be different.
- What are the clinical trials that are relevant to me — both at MSK and elsewhere? Every hospital has its own portfolio of clinical trials, and you should ask about the full landscape of ongoing research to test new therapies.
- Do I need to receive treatment here? Clinical trial participation is often restricted to certain hospitals, but an expert at an academic medical center may be able to collaborate with your community oncologist to help you get the same treatment.
- Can I reach out to you with further questions? Even if you return to your first oncologist for care, often your “second opinion” oncologist will be glad to receive updates and offer continuing guidance.
This story was originally published in 2022 and has been updated.