NCI-Designated Cancer Centers: Do You Need One?

Patient Expert

Most people diagnosed with cancer are successfully treated at their local hospital. But there's a different level of cancer care available at 41 cancer centers nationwide, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. Does your cancer require this special treatment?

"You have cancer."

OK, after you get past the percussive shock the tears, and the tsunami of fear what's your next move?

Figure out if you can be successfully treated at your local hospital; or if your outcome will be better if you receive treatment at a higher-level facility: a National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated cancer center.

What's a "designated cancer center"?

According to the NCI, designated cancer centers "meet rigorous criteria for world-class, state-of-the-art programs in multidisciplinary cancer research" that will lead to better approaches to prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of cancer."

NCI-designated cancer centers are primarily research facilities, and usually affiliated with a university in some way. But that doesn't mean they're solely academic institutions; they apply that research by offering cutting-edge treatment to cancer patients - including access to clinical trials.

The NCI currently issues quality certifications to 68 hospitals and research facilities across the U.S.; with 1,500+ cancer-treatment facilities nationwide, these 68 are a select group, representing just 4% of the total.

Forty-one of the 68 are designated comprehensive cancer centers; while an additional 27 are simply graded cancer centers.

The difference? Comprehensive cancer centers offer more breadth and depth of research; and they pursue public outreach, offering education, patient support, and cancer control programs in their communities.

Do comprehensive cancer centers offer better care?

A 2014 study revealed that 5-year survival rates for patients treated at comprehensive cancer centers are higher than for those treated at their community hospital - in some cancers, up to twice as high.

But that doesn't mean every cancer patient needs to seek out a comprehensive cancer center. In fact, over 90% of cancer patients in America are treated at non-designated cancer centers or hospitals - in most cases, successfully.

Which brings us back to the initial question: how do you determine if you should seek treatment at an NCI-designated cancer center?

When to seek care at a designated cancer center

First, if there's one within easy reach - go for it. I was fortunate to live just 2 miles from one of these centers, so it was a natural choice. These facilities are scattered around the country; check this list of NCI-designated cancer centers to find the one nearest you.

Second, determine how common (or rare) your diagnosis is. A breast cancer patient with a diagnosis of hormone-receptive IDC - the most common type of breast cancer - will probably do very well at any treatment facility. However, a woman with inflammatory breast cancer, a much less frequent diagnosis, might receive better care at a comprehensive cancer center.

Next, consider how advanced your cancer is. Obviously, the farther it's spread, the worse your prognosis, the more serious your illness. And when you're in a clear life-or-death situation, you want the very best care you can possibly get.

Finally, go with your gut. Does your local doctor seem at all hesitant or confused about what course of treatment to take? Do s/he and the surgeon disagree? Do you feel less than confident that your doctor - and your community hospital - have the necessary gear to successfully treat your particular cancer?

If so, consider a comprehensive cancer center - for treatment or, more simply, for a second opinion.

If that second opinion concurs with what your local doctors say, then your local hospital is probably a good option for treatment.

But if there's any disagreement, it might be wise to transfer your care to the comprehensive cancer center, where you'll receive all the benefits these facilities offer: cutting-edge research; top-notch oncologists; and experience in treating rare or advanced cancers.

In other words, your best chance at surviving a tricky cancer.

See more helpful articles:

Just Diagnosed? We Can Help

A Guide to Breast Cancer Treatment

IBC: Breast Cancer Doesn't Always Begin With a Lump

Picking a Breast Cancer Doctor or Surgeon: Neighborhood Oncologist or Big Cancer Center?

Breast cancer survivor and award-winning author PJ Hamel, a long-time contributor to the HealthCentral community, counsels women with breast cancer through the volunteer program at her local hospital. She founded and manages a large and active online survivor support network.