The Importance of Second Opinions
- Emmy Award-winning TV host Samantha Harris, 49, recently spoke on “The Girlfriend Doctor” podcast with Dr. Anna Cabeca on how her personal breast cancer journey taught her the importance of advocating for your health and seeking multiple opinions.
- When you see a doctor for a problem, don’t hesitate to make sure that your questions are fully answered and that you are comfortable with the plan moving forward. By doing this, you are advocating for your health.
- Seeking a second or third opinion for your diagnosis and treatment plan is another aspect of advocating for your health and making sure you get the treatment you need.
- SurvivorNet offers questions you can consider asking your doctor if your are thinking about seeking another opinion on your diagnosis or treatment plan.
The “Dancing With the Stars” and “Entertainment Tonight” recently spoke out on “The Girlfriend Doctor” podcast with Dr. Anna Cabeca to highlight how following your intuition and looking for second opinions is incredible valuable in one’s cancer journey.
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Recounting her diagnosis, Harris described it as “blindsiding,” telling Dr. Cabeca, how she had gone to get a mammogram before turning 40 because she had cancer in the family.
She said her dad passed away from colon cancer, and his mom had breast cancer at around age 65 and lived to 95.
Harris, who recalled herself being in great health, that her mammogram results initially came back clear—something she presumed would be the case because she was “so healthy.”
However, 11 days after her “clear mammogram result” she was at the gym when she noticed a “sizey” lump in one of her breasts.
“Now I could have just stuck my head in the sand and thought ‘clear mammogram, I’m fun, whatever,’ but I thought, “I’ll just call my OBGYN.”
Her OBGYN, who Harris insisted she “trusted more than anyone” checked her breasts, felt the lump, and told her the lump was “nothing” because “this is what 40 looks like, lumpy beasts.”
After a month passed, Harris noticed the lump was still there, so she decided to get a second opinion. Since she was initially told it wasn’t cancer, she went to get checked by her internist, who “said it was the same thing, did nothing, and sent me on my way,” Harris explained.
Then, in February, marking four months since she first discovered the lump, she decided to see a specialty doctor who looks at breasts, a breast oncologist at a local hospital.
Expert Resources On Living Healthy Like Samantha Harris
“Again, she did not think I had anything to worry about but she did two ultrasounds, a biopsy, we had a subsequent MRI, not one test detected that it was breast cancer,” Harris said. “However, she did come back with the pathology results from a needle biopsy and said, ‘I have good news and bad news. The good news is it’s not cancer, the bad news is I don’t know what it is.'”
About a week after undergoing her lumpectomy, she returned back to her doctor for her pathology results when she learned she did in fact have cancer, it was invasive ductal carcinoma in situ.
According to SurvivorNet experts ductal carcinoma in situ (DCIS), also known as stage zero breast cancer, means that the cancer is confined to the inside of the milk duct, and has not spread through the walls into the nearby tissue.
DCIS is considered a non-invasive cancer, however, in Harris’ case it was invasive. Some doctors don’t even consider it a cancer, and would prefer to take a watch-and-wait approach over treatment. Others may recommend the surgery route, which usually involves a lumpectomy, and sometimes radiation as well.
“It was terrifying and overwhelming, and the adrenaline and anxiety and hysteria I could literally feel coursing in my veins, the vibration didn’t go away for a few weeks until I realized I needed to flip my perspective because this thing was shooting down every bit of positivity and happiness that I had.”
Looking back on the multiple opinions she received before and after her diagnosis, Harris, who ultimately learned the “power of positive self talk” advised anyone hearing her story to “not be afraid to offend your doctor by getting a second opinion or even third opinion … because we have to know, we have to understand.”
Harris, noting how following her gut feeling was the most important thing she learn through her journey, continued, “I even got a second pathology opinion because we were basing all of our decisions on the pathology, so I wanted to make sure all the interpretation was correct. It was.
“I had three different surgical oncologists who I met with, I had two radiation oncologists who I met with, and I got multiple opinions.
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Harris ultimately underwent a double mastectomy with two stage reconstruction and did not undergo chemotherapy. She also chose not to do additional radiation.
Samantha Harris’ Cancer Journey
In March 2014, Samantha Harris was diagnosed with breast cancer “even after a clear mammogram.”
“It missed the cancer in my right breast,” she previously wrote on her website. “Two doctors told me the lump I found 11 days later was ‘nothing.'”
She explained, “Finally, four months after finding that lump, I went to see a breast cancer specialist (a surgical oncologist), someone whose main job is to look at breasts all day and specializes in the detection of breast cancer.”
Harris then had a follow-up MRI, biopsy and ultrasound, but her cancer still remained undetected, though doctors did see that “something was not right.”
“We decided to take it out,” she wrote of the next steps in her cancer battle. “Thank goodness, because when the pathology from that lumpectomy came back, it was indeed invasive carcinoma, in addition to the less concerning ductal carcinoma in situ.”
From there, she needed a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts) followed by reconstruction. And even though her cancer did spread to one lymph node, she did not need chemotherapy or radiation.
“This roller coaster was filled with immensely difficult decisions, but I am thrilled to report that they got it all and I am cancer free!” she wrote on her website. “I will continue to be monitored closely for the rest of what doctors tell me is sure to be a long, healthy life.”
“I remain on an estrogen-blocker to keep any future breast cancer from rearing its ugly head and I am back to all my regular activities,” she added. “Mom to two energetic, wonderful little girls. Work. Hitting the gym hard-core as always. Happiness.”
Harris has remained focused on her health, in fact, she published, “Your Healthiest Healthy: 8 Easy Ways to Take Control, Help Prevent and Fight Cancer, and Live a Longer, Cleaner, Happier Life,” in 2018.
The Importance of Getting a Second Opinion
After receiving a cancer diagnosis, it’s important to remember that you can, and should, talk to other cancer specialists about your disease.
“If I had any advice for you following a cancer diagnosis, it would be, first, to seek out multiple opinions as to the best care,” National Cancer Institute Chief of Surgery Steven Rosenberg told SurvivorNet in a previous interview. “Because finding a doctor who is up to the latest of information is important.”
As we highlight in several areas of SurvivorNet, highly respected doctors sometimes disagree on the right course of treatment, and advances in genetics and immunotherapy are creating new options.
Also, in some instances the specific course of treatment is not clear cut. That’s even more reason why understanding the potential approaches to your disease is crucial.
At the National Cancer Institute, there is a patient referral service that will “guide patients to the right group depending on their disease state so that they can gain access to these new experimental treatments,” Rosenberg says.
Furthermore, getting another opinion may also help you avoid doctor biases. For example, some surgeons own radiation treatment centers. “So there may be a conflict of interest if you present to a surgeon that is recommending radiation because there is some ownership of that type of facility,” Dr. Jim Hu, director of robotic surgery at Weill Cornell Medical Center, tells SurvivorNet.
Other reasons to get a second opinion include:
- To see a doctor who has more experience treating your type of cancer
- You have a rare type of cancer
- There are several ways to treat your cancer
- You feel like your doctor isn’t listening to you, or isn’t giving you good advice
- You have trouble understanding your doctor
- You don’t like the treatment your doctor is recommending, or you’re worried about its possible side effects
- Your insurance company wants you to get another medical opinion
- Your cancer isn’t improving on your current treatment
Bottom line, being proactive about your health could be a matter of life or death. Learn as much as you can from as many experts as you can, so that you know that you did your best to take control of your health.
Questions for Your Doctor
If you find yourself considering seeking a second or third medical opinion, here are some questions to kickstart the conversation with your doctor:
- Is there any other testing available for the type of cancer I have?
- Are there any other treatment options available for my type of cancer?
- Why or why do you not recommend those other options?
- I would like to seek a second opinion on my diagnosis and treatment options. Is there another doctor or facility you recommend?
- Do you want the second opinion to be sent to you?
- Can I have a copy of all my records that I can share with this second physician?
Contributing: SurvivorNet Staff