If you have to get cancer, you should definitely get cancer in Boston.  Seriously, we have some of the best hospitals in the world and brilliant doctors are just a short-ish car or train ride away.

With this in mind and while I’m in a lull in treatment– AC chemo is scheduled for Aug. 15, which will be four long months after my mastectomy/reconstruction– I decided to venture from my comfortable cancer home at MGH to get a second opinion on the rest of my treatment at Dana-Farber.

Dana-Farber and MGH are both under the Partners Healthcare system and share doctors, resources, etc., so I wasn’t exactly going into uncharted territory.  But since my insurance pays for second opinions and I never sought a second opinion at the outset of treatment, I figured, “Hey, what the heck? I can meet some new docs, see some fresh faces, and maybe get a little reassurance or food for thought.”

So a few weeks ago, my husband and I visited Dana-Farber.  For the greater good, I have turned the experience into a Dana-Farber/MGH comparison, a.k.a. smackdown, should any of my dear readers or their loved ones need cancer care in Boston.

ROUND 1: Quality of Care

Dana-Farber is the rock star of the cancer world.  Whether you’re grocery shopping, driving down the highway, or watching the game, you’ll run across the Jimmy Fund. It’s everywhere.  The Pan Mass Challenge, the famous charity biking event that every year gathers thousands of people to raise thousands of dollars and ride across the state , directly supports Dana-Farber.  In 2011, the event raised $35 million, according to Dana-Farber.  That is cray-cray.  Needless to say, with that kind of money and recognition, Dana-Farber’s resources and care are amazing.

MGH’s Cancer Center, on the other hand, is super stealthy.  There are no blockbuster partnerships or endurance charity events or anything else (that I know of).  But for all its stealthiness, MGH has amazing doctors at the top of their fields, and the care you get is just as good as Dana-Farber.  Period.  I don’t know how they get their money but I’m sure it has something to do with how a hospital is run.  I’m too lazy to research it right now.



ROUND 2: Ease of Access

There are a lot of aspects that influence an experience’s relative ease or difficulty.  For this comparison, I’ll consider traffic and MBTA accessibility, hospital design, and hospital staffing.

Transportation: Dana-Farber is in the Longwood Medical Area of Boston which I have long considered the absolute worst place to drive in Boston.  There are so many pedestrians and cars engaged in anarchy that getting through two blocks feels like you’ve survived Hell and by the time you get to your destination,  you’re lucky if you’ve escaped road rage.  Also, the medical area is nowhere near a major highway.  Be prepared for Boston street craziness.

Original photo (sans "anarchy" comment) courtesy www.bostonstudies.com.
Original map (sans “anarchy” comment) courtesy http://www.bostonstudies.com.

If you want to ditch your car, be prepared to take the Green Line (yuck) and/or a bus (double yuck).

MGH, on the other hand, is very close to Rte. 93/Southeast Expressway and is the first exit off of Storrow Drive.  You can get there without expending too many brain cells while concentrating on your route.  There are wayyyy fewer pedestrians to worry about.  And the MBTA Red Line (yay) stops RIGHT OUT FRONT (double yay).

Hospital layout: The great thing about Dana-Farber is that it’s small and cozy compared to MGH.  Almost everything you need is an elevator ride away.  If you need scans or radiation, they send you to adjoining buildings but Dana-Farber is still much more compact than MGH.

MGH’s Cancer Center is also self-contained in one building but getting scans requires a bit of a walk to other parts of the campus.  It’s not a huge deal but it’s different.

Picture this: Dana-Farber is your comfortable liberal arts college with 1,000 students while MGH is your university with 15,000 undergrads.  Maybe you like the feeling of self-containment and common purpose.  Or maybe you like the hustle and bustle of people shooting off in different directions as they do all kinds of interesting things.  I personally like the latter since I count people-watching as one of my official hobbies but think the former is fantastic for many people.

Staff: Although both hospitals have excellent doctors, the support staff at Dana-Farber is heads above MGH.  After my appointment was set up, I received a very detailed email from a patient coordinator about what I needed to gather and bring to my appointment.  When we arrived at the hospital, the patient registration process was seamless and the people in the department seemed to actually care about what they were doing and treated patients with extra respect.

While I was waiting for my first appointment in the exam room, a young woman came in and gave me a wealth of information about the hospital’s Young Adult Program, which is a gateway to resources and events throughout the year for people under 40 who have cancer.  This type of immediate outreach is commendable.  And it’s lacking at MGH.  Luckily, that woman, the director of the program, said that even if I keep my care at MGH (which I will), I can still participate in Dana-Farber’s YAP program.  Very cool.

I’m guessing the better quality of interaction is due to the shared sense of purpose at Dana-Farber.  MGH is a large bureaucracy and some of the people who work there reflect this fact in their demeanor and attitudes.  Don’t get me wrong.  There are many wonderful support staffers at MGH but you can count on uniform excellence at Dana-Farber.

WINNER OF ROUND 2: Dana-Farber unless you don’t have a car.  In that case, MGH all the way.


ROUND 3: Food

MGH has many dining and quick-bite options throughout the hospital.  On the first floor of the building that houses the cancer center, there’s a mini-cafeteria.  If you take a five-minute walk, you can get to MGH’s huge and splendid main cafeteria which has more food options than you can imagine.  That cafeteria is underground, however, and the ambiance is 100 percent “cafeteria.”

Keith in the Dana-Farber cafe
Keith in the Dana-Farber cafe

Dana-Farber has a large cafeteria on its third floor.  While the selection of food is necessarily smaller (smaller space, fewer people to feed), it’s quite good.  They make fresh pizza in a real pizza oven and have an Asian noodle bar.  It gets VERY crowded and hectic at lunch time and seating was sparse, but the ambiance is definitely more Au Bon Pain than hospital cafe.



ROUND 4: Hospital Gowns

You know those awful hospital gowns that are in every single hospital you’ve ever been to?  Well, in a stroke of genius and , Dana-Farber offers CUTE HOSPITAL GOWNS.  Yes, I know that sounds like an oxymoron.  It sounds impossible and I know you’re either shaking your head or thinking, “No way.”  That’s why I made Keith record the proof.

Working it in DF's hot hospital gown
Working it in DF’s hot hospital gown

MGH, please take note.  Thanks.

WINNER OF ROUND 4: Dana-Farber


ROUND 5: Healing Gardens

Both Dana-Farber and MGH have healing gardens.  These are gardens with real plants and top-notch artistry that offer respite from the hospital environment.  At MGH, the Healing Garden is on the 8th floor of the cancer center and has both an indoor and outdoor component.  The outdoor part offers stunning views of the Charles River, Cambridge, and city traffic infrastructure.

DF's Healing Garden
DF’s Healing Garden

Dana-Farber’s Healing Garden, on the other hand, is all indoors.  Boston’s medical area is lacking in inspiring vistas– unless you find pedestrian and car anarchy beautiful, of course–so the designers made up for it with amazing design.  DF’s Healing Garden is truly a sculptural work of art.  And they even pipe in fake bird song.  But sadly, it can’t compete with MGH’s real estate advantage.

WINNER OF ROUND 5: MGH because you can’t beat the views.

View from MGH Healing Garden in early April
View from MGH Healing Garden in early April


ROUND 6: Art

I wasn’t going to include art as a smackdown category until one of my best friend’s, Sheryl Pace, told me she visited Dana-Farber just to view their art collection.  She said they have an “amazing collection.”  I did a little searching and found this DF press release announcing the hospital’s art initiative.  They have more than 500 works on display and even offer audio tours.  Wow!

MGH rotates out original works of art in their waiting rooms on a (I’m guessing at this) bi-monthly basis.  The work at MGH is primo artistry, not the amateur stuff that you see at your local Starbucks.  I always enjoy it, but it sounds like MGH just can’t compete with DF in this category.

WINNER OF ROUND 6: Dana-Farber.


I had fun doing this comparison although in reality, the only thing I cared about was whether Dana-Farber would give me different information about my cancer care.  Both doctors with whom I met gave me the same opinions as my MGH doctors.  Both Dana-Farber doctors were empathetic and had great bedside manners.  But I absolutely love MGH and all of my doctors, especially my beautiful and brilliant oncologist, Michaela Higgins, who I credit with saving my life and helping me and my family through really bad situations with humor, empathy, solid information, and a charming Irish accent.

But I hope that this post gives a bit more background–some essential, some silly– on Boston’s top cancer institutions.  Even more so, I hope that you’ll never need this information.