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Breast Cancer Doctors and Specialists

Overview

It's estimated that there will be about 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer in the United States in 2016, according to the American Cancer Society (ACS).

If you’re diagnosed with breast cancer, you’ll probably have a medical team. Your team will include a primary care doctor and specialists you can trust and talk with.

Primary care physician

If you notice a lump in your breast, the first step is to make an appointment with your primary care doctor as soon as possible. It’s also possible that your doctor could discover breast lumps during a routine exam.

A primary care doctor can’t diagnose cancer, but they can direct you to the correct specialists. These include:

  • oncologist
  • surgeon
  • radiologist
  • radiation oncologist
  • radiation therapist
  • radiation technologist

Before your appointments prepare some written information about yourself to give your specialists. This includes symptoms and family medical history. Also include questions you have about breast cancer.

Oncologist

An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. Your oncologist will order imaging tests and other laboratory tests to rule out breast cancer or confirm a diagnosis.

After a diagnosis, your oncologist stages the cancer. This will help them determine the best course of treatment. This could include surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, or a combination.

Your oncologist provides ongoing cancer therapy and manages your treatment plan. Your oncologist may also refer you to other specialists.

Questions to ask your oncologist might include:

  • What is the stage of my breast cancer and what does that mean?
  • What type of doctors should I see and when should I see them?
  • What is my outlook?

Radiologist

A radiologist is a doctor who specializes in using imaging technologies like X-ray, computerized tomography (CT) scans, and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) to diagnose diseases.

An X-ray technician will perform your regular screening mammography and any other diagnostic mammography. Then, a radiologist will interpret the results from imaging tests and use the findings to diagnose cancer or other conditions. A radiologist will also consult with your referring doctor to discuss the results.

Radiologists also interpret other diagnostic tests performed to assist in staging your breast cancer.

Questions to ask your radiologist might include:

  • When will I get my results?
  • What do I need to know if my results are not clear?
  • Will I need a biopsy?

Surgeon (surgical oncologist)

A surgical oncologist is a surgeon who specializes in tumor removal. Your oncologist may refer you to a surgical oncologist if a lumpectomy or mastectomy is needed. A lumpectomy removes a cancerous tumor, and a mastectomy removes the entire breast.

Questions to ask your surgeon might include:

  • What surgery do you suggest for me, and when should I have it done?
  • What is the recovery time after surgery? How long will I be in the hospital after surgery?
  • Will I need other treatments in addition to my surgery?

Radiation oncologist

Your oncologist will refer you to a radiation oncologist if they determine that radiation therapy is needed as part of your treatment. A radiation oncologist is a radiologist who specializes in using radiation to treat cancer.

Questions to ask your radiation oncologist might include:

  • How many radiation treatments will I need?
  • How long does each radiation treatment take?
  • Will I be able to continue my normal daily activities while undergoing treatment? After treatment?

Radiation therapist

You may also work with a radiation therapist during treatment for breast cancer. A radiation therapist isn't a doctor. Instead, this person handles or administers your radiation treatment under a doctor’s guidance.

Plastic surgeon

Depending on your diagnosis, your oncologist may recommend a lumpectomy to remove the cancerous tumor. Your oncologist could also recommend a mastectomy to completely remove one or both breasts. If you have a mastectomy, you can see a plastic surgeon for breast reconstruction.

During breast reconstruction surgery, the surgeon creates a new breast shape using an artificial implant or your own body tissue. There's also the option of reconstructing the nipple and areola. You can have reconstruction surgery at the time of your mastectomy or at a later time.

Questions to ask your plastic surgeon might include:

  • What are my reconstruction options? Should I be having surgery on both breasts?
  • How will my new breast(s) feel and look?
  • May I see pictures of reconstructive surgeries you have performed?

Genetic counselor

You may want to schedule an appointment with a genetic counselor if you have relatives who’ve had breast cancer. They can test for BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations and other genes that predispose you to breast cancer.

A genetic counselor can’t diagnose a condition, but they can provide information to help you understand your risks. They can also help you understand the risks for your children and other members of your biological family.

Questions to ask your genetic counselor might include:

  • What can I learn from genetic testing?
  • What can I do if I have a mutation?
  • When should I have genetic testing done?

How to find a specialist

Quality cancer care is imperative. You don’t have to use an oncologist or other specialists you’ve been referred to. There are resources available to help you find specialists and a hospital you're comfortable with, perhaps with extensive experience treating people with cancer.

Resources for finding a hospital or specialist include the American College of Surgeons. This organization offers information on more than 1,500 cancer centers in the United States. You can also find information on cancer centers through the National Cancer Institute.

Also speak with your health insurance provider before selecting a hospital or a specialist.

If the specialist you choose isn’t within your provider’s network, your insurance company may not cover the cost of visits and treatment.

The takeaway

The survival rate for breast cancer varies depending on the stage at the time of diagnosis.

The key to survival is early detection. Conduct self-breast examinations at least once a month and schedule yearly mammograms beginning at age 40 to 45. Also knowing the types of doctors available to you will help you get the best treatment.

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