Finding the right doctor(s) to guide your treatment plan is very important to your success. Sometimes, the right doctor is not the one who initially diagnosed you, but rather a specialist in melanoma, or someone who is administering the experimental treatment you want. In general, you want to find someone who you trust, who you feel comfortable with, and who you feel is going to help you win. Below are some things to think about.
Try to work with a specialist
Some doctors are general oncologists. Some specialize primarily (or even exclusively) in the treatment of melanoma. For difficult cases of melanoma like stage 4, you should consider working with a specialist who spends the majority of their time and energy treating melanoma.
Picking the doctor is also picking the treatment
Because late stage melanoma is a challenge to fight, while there are a few “standard” treatments (i.e. fully approved by the FDA), there are dozens of non-standard treatments being tested all around the country. The reason why there are so many experimental treatments is because the standard ones haven’t fully solved the problem yet. At any one time, one particular doctor may be administering a few different types of treatments, but no single doctor is aware of all of the treatments that are out there, nor how they are working. So if you really want to explore all of your treatment options, you will have to talk with and meet with several doctors, often times, not in your local area.
Picking the right treatment is important because some treatments work better than others. Additionally, some treatments work better for some people than others, often based on age, gender, blood and tumor characteristics, stage, and more. I always suggest that you take the time to talk with many doctors, send them your scan reports, blood work, etc. and ask them if your characteristics suggest a higher likelihood of a treatment working. I probably spoke with 20 doctors before helping my wife narrow down the treatment options.
If you have stage 4 melanoma, consider talking with people at the most prominent treatment centers in the country, which are generally: Sloan Kettering, MD Anderson, and NCI in Bethesda. Do the research on their websites, find doctors who are specializing in melanoma, call their nurses and find out what trials they are doing.
Consider an integrative doctor
An integrative doctor is one who brings together “western” medical treatments like chemotherapies, along with other cancer fighting treatments (like herbs, supplements, mind over matter techniques, and much more). In my opinion, these people are the “best of both worlds” because they have many more “tools” and approaches to fighting cancer at their disposal, and can construct a holistic program of attack for you. The good news as well is that because they are integrative, they know how to combine the treatments together. Since they work with both chemotherapies and other “non-standard” cancer treatments, they know what you should do and shouldn’t do while you’re on your main treatment, they will know to point out risks with drug interactions, and more.
The other advantage an integrative cancer doctor has is that they may have 10 or 20 years of clinical experience using integrative medicine to fight cancer. This is very important because there are not many broad-based human scientific studies done on the effect of herbs, supplements, food, and more on fighting melanoma. This doesn’t mean those things don’t work, it just means they haven’t been fully studied. However, the next best thing is finding a doctor with 10 or 20 years of clinical experience using integrative practices and methods in treating cancer. They will have refined what they do over their experience with hundreds of patients before you, and you will benefit from that. They can also help you use herbs, supplements, diet, etc. to manage the side effects of chemotherapies, and can put together a post-treatment regimen to help you continue to kill any cancer that is left, and keep it from coming back.
You can work with more than one doctor
It’s ok as well to work with more than one doctor. Especially when fighting very difficult forms of melanoma, doctors are used to working together in teams. It’s ok to have both a “normal” doctor and an “integrative” doctor working with you at the same time. Just be clear with both that you are working together, and ask them to talk to each other.
Find someone you are comfortable with
Beyond picking a doctor who has a treatment you’re interested in, its important to pick a doctor who has the right “feel.” You wan to find a doctor that you trust and that you genuinely feel cares about you and wants to help you fight and win. When you meet with them, ask yourself: Do I have faith in their intelligence and ability to help? Do they have a bedside manner than works with my personality and approach? Does my “gut” tell me to have faith in this person?
Your doctor is your partner in this fight. You wouldn’t marry someone at the beginning of the first date, and you don’t have to chose your doctor immediately either. Take the time to find the one that feels the most comfortable to you.
Consider traveling for treatment
If you find the right doctor and the right treatment, yet it requires travel, don’t despair. Many times the pharma company who has the experimental treatment you are considering, will sponsor some of your travel costs. There are also organizations that offer free flights for people who are fight cancer (ex. www.corpangelnetwork.org).