If you or a loved one is diagnosed with cancer, you will likely feel a range of powerful emotions, from shock and confusion to fear and determination. And chances are one of your first questions will be: What's my treatment plan? To find out, you first have to choose and meet with an oncologist.

Here, we explain what factors to consider when you’re deciding on an oncologist, as well as helpful questions you can ask once you have one picked out.

What is an oncologist?

An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. This is the person who will discuss treatment options with you and manage your treatment. They’ll also work with the nurses, surgeons, genetic counselors and everyone else on your team to make sure you get the exact care that you need.

Types of oncologists and what they treat

Many oncologists specialize in treating specific forms of cancer. For example, hematologist oncologists treat cancers of the blood, and gynecologic oncologists treat cancers and other conditions of the female reproductive system. But generally, there are three types of oncologists, based on the treatments they use:

  • Medical oncologists – These types of oncologists treat cancer with medication, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy and targeted therapy.
  • Radiation oncologists – Radiation oncologists specialize in treating cancer using X-ray or other radiation therapy.
  • Surgical oncologists – This type of oncologist treats cancer by surgically removing tumors.

Depending on your cancer, you may work with several oncologists over the course of your treatment.

How to choose an oncologist

Getting your cancer treatment from an oncologist you trust and feel comfortable talking to is deeply important. To find the right match, you may choose to meet and talk to a few different oncologists so you can compare and contrast their qualities. Later, you may even choose to go back to one of them if you want a second opinion on your cancer treatment plan.

But for any oncologist, there are some things you can do to make sure you’re on the right track:

Ask for a referral that’s close to home

Depending on the clinic or health system you’ve received care from in the lead up to your diagnosis, you’ll likely be referred to an oncologist in your area. Doctors can only send their patients to locations where they have admitting privileges, so make sure the doctor you choose has privileges at cancer centers or hospitals where you’re willing to go.

At a comprehensive health system like HealthPartners, we’re home to a range of different cancer specialists across multiple locations – so for many people, it’s a smooth transition from diagnosis to treatment, and it’s often possible to meet with an oncologist within 48 hours of a diagnosis.

However, if location isn’t as important to you, you may ask for the names of several oncologists specializing in your cancer.

Check to see if they’re in-network

If you’re planning to get treatment in the same health system where you got your diagnosis – and you’ve been covered by your insurance up to this point – it’s likely that you’ll continue to be covered. But it’s worth checking with your insurance to make sure that any oncologists you’re looking at are in-network, especially if you’re working with a smaller clinic or health system.

Knowing who your insurance covers can inform your plans if you think you may need financial assistance for cancer care.

Get reviews of oncologists

One of the best ways to get an idea for what a doctor’s really like is to read reviews from other patients. If you have people in your life who have gone through cancer treatment, for example, you could talk to them about the oncologists or treatment centers they worked with.

Some health systems make things a little easier by providing web pages where people can leave ratings and comments. At HealthPartners, oncologists’ biography pages provide information about their background, specialties and experience, plus what their patients think of them.

Consider your preferences in an oncologist

Think about the kind of personality you’d like your oncologist to have – do you want someone lighthearted, who will crack a joke once in a while? Or would you rather they kept things straight and to the point? This can be something to keep in mind when you’re reading biographies and reviews, but it’ll be especially useful when you talk to an oncologist in person.

Questions to ask your oncologist

Once you have an oncologist picked out, it’s time to think about what you’d like to know about your cancer and your treatment options. To help, we’ve put together a list of questions that can help paint a clearer picture of what to expect going forward:

  • What stage cancer do I have and where is it located? Staging is the process doctors use to describe how large the cancer is and how far it has spread.
  • Has the cancer spread to my lymph nodes or other organs? The cancer stage doesn’t always explain exactly where the cancer is, so it’s a good idea to ask this question to understand if it has spread to other areas of your body.
  • How treatable is the cancer? The answer to this question will depend on the answers to the previous questions.
  • Will I need other tests before we move forward? Depending on how advanced your cancer appears to be, additional tests may be recommended to inform your treatment plan.
  • How soon do I need to be treated? For some cancers, doctors want to begin treatment immediately. For others, more testing may be needed to decide the best course.
  • How long will my treatment take? Your care team may be able to estimate how long you should expect radiation, chemotherapy or other treatments to last.
  • What is the hormone receptor status of my cancer? With breast cancer, cancer cells may have receptors for certain hormones and rely on them to grow. Knowing the hormone receptor status of your cancer gives doctors a better idea of how to treat it.
  • Should I consider genetic testing? Genetic testing may reveal whether your cancer is due to an inherited gene mutation, which can inform how it’s treated.
  • Will I have access to clinical trials? In some instances, emerging treatments may be available for you to try. Locally, HealthPartners Institute’s oncology research provides cancer patients with access to clinical trials and research, often at their local hospital or clinic.
  • Where will my treatment sessions take place? This could be at a clinic, a cancer center, or both.

Find your perfect match

Beginning cancer treatment can be scary. But your oncologist will be able to explain every part of your treatment, help you understand what to expect and be at your side each step of the way. All you have to do is find one who fits your needs and makes you feel comfortable.