The words “You have cancer” are a life-changing moment you never forget. You must now choose doctors, select treatments and manage your life while navigating challenging medical and insurance systems.

In this and the columns in the next two weeks, we will examine strategies through the cancer journey to the best outcome with the least discomfort.

Today’s column looks at guidelines for choosing the doctors and institutions that will serve you best. Next week, we consider ways for evaluating and selecting the best treatment for your cancer and in the third column we’ll examine cancer survivorship — dealing with all of the personal, work and financial challenges that come with a cancer diagnosis including decisions about supportive care and natural medicine.

If you are diagnosed with cancer, start your journey by recruiting your conventional medical-oncology team. They have the best diagnostics and many worthwhile treatments. Your family doctor can give you referrals.

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“Top Doctor” surveys are useful as well, although there are many excellent doctors who don’t make it into “top docs.” Be cautious of blogs and online sites that may be influenced by just a few opinions.

If you belong to an HMO or other restricted plan you can still interview different doctors in the oncology group and, in some cases, be treated at affiliated cancer centers. You can then set an appointment and evaluate your prospective doctor with this checklist:

1. Experience treating your diagnosis. Board certification in the specialty you need is a must.

2. Covered by your insurance. In-network is best although the right doctor may be worth a difference in cost.

3. Has an acceptable disciplinary record. Log on to your state department of health website to see the doctor’s history ( for Washington state).

4. Practices at a hospital that is highly rated for safety. Check reputable hospital ratings such as Leapfrog Group,

5. Communicates effectively. You want a doctor whose communication style and demeanor are consistent with yours, who is approachable and works well with your decision-making process. Be clear about your preferences to give the doctor a chance to meet them.

6. Friendly, cooperative office staff. Front desk, nursing and support staff should be approachable, responsive and make you feel like a priority, not an interruption. Today’s health care world is pretty lean, so keep your expectations reasonable.

7. Is in the same health-care-delivery system as your other medical specialists and your primary-care doctor. Doctors who are in the same electronic-medical-record system or otherwise connected will make care coordination more seamless.

8. The doctor’s gender is not as important as the other guidelines.

If the first doctor is a home run, you’re set. If not, you can interview another until you are satisfied that you’ve found the doctor you want for the long haul.

Having the right team in place will improve the quality of your life and your care.

For more information see my cancer blog at

Dan Labriola, N.D., is director of the Northwest Natural Health Specialty Care Clinic and medical director for naturopathic services, Swedish Medical Center’s Cancer Institute.