Which Type of Doctor Should Treat My Skin Cancer?
Just as there are multiple types of skin cancer, there are multiple types of doctors and specialists who treat skin cancer. Choices may include (but aren’t limited to) a family physician, a dermatologist, a plastic surgeon, a Mohs surgeon, an oncologist, or a radiation therapist.
How, then, do you know which type of doctor you should be seeing?
The type of doctor to treat your skin cancer may depend on the type of your skin cancer or even the location of your skin cancer. Also, you may end up with a medical team, comprised of more than one type of doctor, to treat your skin cancer.
Let’s do a basic overview of how each type of medical provider may participate in your skin cancer journey.
If you do not have a dermatologist, your family physician may be the medical provider who examines your skin or any suspicious areas you point out. A family physician may perform a biopsy in-office. It is important to remember that family physicians may not be specifically trained in skin cancer, though, and may or may not be the preferred doctor to treat your skin cancer. Your family physician may refer you to a dermatologist for treatment of your skin cancer.
Annual full-body exams are a good idea
In addition to doing frequent self-skin checks, it’s a great idea to have routine full-body exams by a dermatologist, yearly or at whatever frequency your dermatologist recommends. After a major skin cancer surgery in 2015 to remove 23 areas of skin cancer, my doctor requested that I see him every three months for a complete skin check. I eventually "graduated" to skin checks every six months, and have remained at 6-month checks since that time.
If your dermatologist notices unusual areas during the exam, he or she should be able to treat pre-cancerous areas (using cryotherapy, for example) and may also perform a biopsy in-office. My dermatologist performs excisional surgeries in-office to remove certain skin cancers, along with curettage and desiccation (burn and scrape). She will not perform surgeries on my face, though (nor do I really want her to). There are, however, dermatologists who specialize in facial cancers.
Your dermatologist may refer you to another specialist for treatment of your skin cancer. I have had referrals to plastic surgeons and Mohs surgeons from my dermatologist. A plastic surgeon specializes in reconstruction, repair, and improving the end result cosmetically. Any facial surgery I have needed to have done for skin cancer removal, I had done by a plastic surgeon, except for one. My plastic surgeon referred me to a Mohs surgeon due to the location of my skin cancer (just under my nose) and the lack of tissue in the area to work with.
A Mohs surgeon is specially trained to perform Mohs surgery. Some Mohs surgeons perform the surgery then refer patients to a plastic surgeon for closing the surgical area. I was thrilled that my plastic surgeon referred me to an excellent Mohs surgeon who did amazing work on closures, eliminating the need for a plastic surgeon. If you are able to go this route, I highly recommend it.
Your doctor may decide that radiation therapy would be beneficial for your skin cancer and refer you to a radiation therapist. Radiation therapists administer radiation for non-melanoma skin cancers, which can be useful for patients who are not optimal surgical candidates. The patient would continue to follow up with the dermatologist once radiation is complete.
If your skin cancer is advanced or a high-risk type of cancer, you may be referred to an oncologist. There are several types of oncologists who treat skin cancer, including dermatological oncologists, who specialize in skin cancers; medical oncologists, who treat skin cancers with chemotherapy, medication, or immunotherapy; radiation oncologists, who treat skin cancers with radiation therapy; and surgical oncologists, who surgically remove skin cancers.
Look at credentials
Board certification may be an important factor for you to consider when choosing your medical team. Having a board-certified provider gives you the peace of mind knowing that they have the training, skill, and experience in their field.
Do not be afraid to ask questions about your proposed treatment or to find out if there are alternative treatments available, and speak up if you do not feel comfortable with a provider or with the treatment plan. Remember, this is your skin cancer journey, and you are your own best advocate.
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