How to Build Your Cancer Care Medical Team

November 19, 2021
How to Build Your Cancer Care Medical Team

Written by Kim Langdon, MD

 

Once you’ve received a cancer diagnosis, you’ll enter the world of cancer treatment. This can sometimes be overwhelming, with many different appointments with different doctors. It can start to feel hard to keep track of who’s who.

Almost always, cancer patients aren’t treated by just one doctor, but by a whole team of specialists. It’s most common to receive care at a cancer center, where these different specialists are gathered together. This makes it easier for the team to collaborate on a patient’s care, and gives you convenient access to all the specialists you need.

Who’s on your team? How does this whole network of professionals work together to help you beat cancer?

Treatment Team

You’ll have one or more oncologists on your medical team. Oncologists are doctors who specialize in treating cancer. Many are subspecialists – experts in treating one particular type of cancer. This is beneficial, because the field of cancer treatment is constantly advancing as new discoveries are made, and a specialist is able to keep up with these advances. Your cancer treatment team will include one or more of these types of doctors:

  • Medical oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in treating cancer with medications, including chemotherapy and immunotherapy. Often, the medical oncologist also oversees the patient’s care, coordinating with the other members of the treatment team.
  • Surgical oncologist. If you’re having any type of surgery to treat your cancer, this surgeon will perform the procedure, and will follow up after surgery to ensure that your healing goes well.
  • Radiation oncologist. If radiation therapy will be a part of your treatment plan, then the radiation oncologist will prescribe and oversee your radiation treatments, and check for any side effects. In general, the treatments are actually performed by a different professional, called a radiation therapist; this person is not a doctor, but has specialized training in delivering radiation therapy as prescribed by a radiation oncologist.
  • Interventional radiologist. It can be easy to confuse this person’s title with that of the radiation oncologist. However, an interventional radiologist doesn’t specialize in using radiation as treatment, but rather in performing treatments that are guided by using radiology. Using technology like ultrasound, CT, or MRI to guide the treatment to exactly the right place, the interventional radiologist can perform targeted therapies (such as embolization, which disrupts a tumor’s blood supply, or tumor ablation, which destroys cancer cells using heat or cold). 
  • Nurses

    In addition to the doctors who prescribe and perform your treatments, there will also be a number of nurses on your care team. In many cases, these will be the professionals that you spend the most time with. Cancer care nurses are highly trained, and usually specialize in one particular type of cancer. Your team may include:

  • Clinical nurses. You will likely be cared for by a wide variety of nurses over the course of your cancer treatment. Different clinical nurses may administer your chemotherapy or immunotherapy, care for you in the hospital, assist in the operating room and care for you after your surgery, check on your symptoms over the course of your treatment, and more. 
  • Nurse practitioners. These nurses have completed advanced education in nursing. They are able to order diagnostic tests and procedures, prescribe medications, and may perform certain procedures. A nurse practitioner may be involved in developing your treatment plan, and may also be involved in your follow-up care in the years after your cancer treatment.
  • Clinical nurse specialists. These nurses also have advanced training, and they generally assist the team in working with patients with complex needs.
  • Nursing assistants and technicians. You will likely meet many of these professionals, who perform certain tasks related to patient care, under the supervision of a registered nurse.
  • Diagnostic Team

    Besides the members of your cancer treatment team, there is also another set of doctors who will be involved in your cancer diagnosis. You may actually never meet many of these doctors, but they perform crucial tasks related to your care.

  • Pathologist. This type of doctor has specialized training in evaluating cells under a microscope, including performing various tests to determine the characteristics of the cells. This is absolutely integral to determining the type of cancer that you have, how aggressive it is, and whether it’s likely to have spread. What the pathologist discovers will have a significant influence on your treatment options.
  • Radiologist. Radiologists are trained to evaluate the results of imaging studies, including X-rays, CT scans, MRIs, and ultrasounds. You’ll likely have quite a few different imaging studies during your cancer journey, and each one will be evaluated by a radiologist.
  • Nuclear medicine specialist. These doctors are specialists in using radioactive materials to detect and treat cancer. You may meet one during a PET scan (which looks for cancer that has spread around the body), or when you receive treatment with radionucleotides (which are used to deliver radiation specifically to cancer tissue).
  • Genetic cancer specialist. These doctors specialize in the field of genetics and cancer. They may use genetic testing to help determine whether you’re at a high risk of getting certain cancers, or to determine whether you’re a candidate for certain treatments based on your tumor’s genetic characteristics.
  • Specialists

    The diagnostic and treatment teams consist of doctors who are cancer specialists. However, you may also need additional doctors to help with your care. Some of them specialize in particular organ systems, and can help to manage the effects of your cancer and your treatments. Others are specialists in particular modes of treatment. You will probably not see all of these different types of specialists; which ones you need will depend on your specific type of cancer and the effects it has on your body.

  • Anesthesiogist. This is a doctor who specializes in anesthesia. An anesthesiologist will ensure that you stay safe while you’re unconscious during surgery, and will offer pain control to keep you comfortable. You will generally meet the anesthesiologist before your procedure, but often you will not see them again afterward.
  • Endocrinologist. This is a doctor who specializes in the management of hormones. Certain cancers may cause disruption of the hormonal system (for example, cancers of glands that produce hormones), while others are influenced by hormone levels. If you have one of these types of cancer, an endocrinologist will likely be involved in your care.
  • Gastroenterologist. Also known as a GI specialist, this is a doctor who treats problems of the digestive system. They may be involved in your care if you have a cancer of the digestive system (such as colon cancer), or if your cancer spreads to the digestive organs.
  • Hematologist, or hematologic oncologist. A hematologist focuses on treating disorders of the blood system. A hematologic oncologist focuses specifically on cancers of this system, such as leukemia. You will likely see one of these doctors if this is the type of cancer that you have.
  • Medical physicist. This type of specialist is trained in physics, but focuses specifically on studying radiation and its use in medicine. A medical physicist may work with your radiation oncologist when developing your radiation treatment plan.
  • Neurologist, neurosurgeon, and/or neuro-oncologist. These are specialists in the nervous system. A neurologist specializes in medical care of this system, while a neurosurgeon performs surgical procedures on the brain, spinal cord, and peripheral nerves. One or both may be involved if you have a brain tumor or other cancer of the nervous system, or if your cancer spreads to the nervous system. A neuro-oncologist focuses specifically on tumors of the nervous system, and will likely be involved in your care if this is the type of cancer that you have.
  • Physiatrist. This type of doctor focuses on rehabilitation, and may be involved in helping you to regain function after surgery or other treatments.
  • Pulmonologist. A pulmonologist is a doctor who specializes in treating problems of the respiratory system. They may be involved in your care if you have lung cancer, or if your cancer spreads to the lungs.

  • Supportive Care

    In addition to the doctors and nurses, there may also be other health care professionals who help to support you through your cancer journey.

  • Genetic counselor. This person is specifically trained to interpret the results of genetic tests. They can help you to understand your results and to make the potentially difficult decisions that may arise from them, as well as to cope with the psychological challenges that genetic tests may present.
  • Nutritionist. Cancer patients may have dietary limitations as a result of their cancer or their treatment. A nutritionist can help with your meal planning both in and out of the hospital, to help you stay as healthy as possible.
  • Psychiatrist or psychologist. Cancer can create a huge psychological burden. A psychiatrist or psychologist can help you to manage the psychological stress associated with cancer. Psychiatrists often prescribe medications that can help with depression and anxiety, while psychologists are more focused on counseling.
  • Social worker. These professionals are trained to help patients manage the stress of a medical diagnosis. They can refer you to community resources that may help, including various financial resources as well as community support groups. They can also provide counseling and teach techniques for emotional regulation, and help both the patient and their family to cope with the burdens of a cancer diagnosis
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