What is a Tumor Board and Should I Consider It?

If you have been diagnosed with advanced breast cancer, your doctor may recommend your case be reviewed by what is called a tumor board.

A tumor board is simply a collection of medical professionals from a variety of specialties who meet regularly to discuss patient treatment. Despite the name, you don’t have to have a tumor for your case to go before this group. All types of cancer are reviewed by a tumor board.

Because cancer care is so complex, no one doctor can have all the answers. The team approach provided by a tumor board brings many highly specialized doctors together to create an optimal treatment plan for each patient’s care.

Who is on the tumor board?

The make-up of a tumor board varies from hospital to hospital and even by type of cancer. This is known as a multidisciplinary team. For instance, a breast cancer tumor board might include:

  • An oncologist who specializes in breast cancer
  • Radiologist
  • Pathologist
  • Plastic surgeon
  • Oncology nurse
  • Social worker, psychologist or patient navigator
  • Research scientist conducting a breast cancer study
  • Palliative care physician
  • Any other doctor or health practitioner with specialized knowledge that might help with your case

Different types of cancer mean that different subspecialists may be called in to consult on a case. For instance, an otolaryngologist and speech therapist may be added for a patient with throat cancer.1

What is the purpose of a tumor board?

If your case goes before a tumor board, your medical history and any relevant details will be discussed among this group of specialists. Rather than sit in separate offices and read the information in your file, this group gets together in one room (or by video conference) and discusses available treatment options and what might work best for your care.

For instance, a pathologist might recommend an additional biopsy that will help better target your therapy. The radiologist might know of a new clinical trial that you would be a good candidate for, but your social worker knows that radiation would be a troublesome option because consist transportation to and from treatment would be difficult.

In the end, the board makes a recommendation for treatment and your lead doctor presents that option or options to you. You then decide whether to proceed with the recommended course of action.

How often a tumor board meets varies by hospital. It may be weekly, biweekly or monthly. In some hospitals, all patients are discussed. In others, only complex cases are brought before the tumor board. Some tumor boards review dozens of cases when they meet while others discuss only a few, such as patients with an advanced tumor, an unusual pathology result, or who have an unusual reaction to treatment.

Can tumor boards improve health outcomes?

Tumor boards are now used worldwide to treat cancer patients. However, the research is mixed when it comes to the question of whether tumor boards actually improve patient outcomes.

A comprehensive global study conducted in 2014 determined that results vary widely.2 Generally, tumor boards tended to improve outcomes in small rural hospitals in the U.S. and in resource-limited settings in other countries. In those situations, a single oncologist who consults on treatment options with colleagues in another city or country tended to have better results.

However, the Veterans Administration looked at the impact tumor boards had on patient outcomes across its vast network and found a “limited association between the presence of tumor boards and care and outcomes.”2

Finally, a study conducted in the United Kingdom found that care teams who participated in tumor boards operated more smoothly and communicated better, and patient satisfaction and outcomes improved.2

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