Get to Know Your Cancer Care Team
Many people can make up the cancer care team. If you’re treated at a small practice in a community setting, there may be fewer players, and you may be sent to other outside practices for services that can’t be handled at your facility.
Oncologists are physicians who have received special training in the area of cancer management. In general, this includes cancer surgeons, radiation oncologists, pediatric oncologists, and medical oncologists. In the treatment of cancers involving the blood or lymph nodes, hematologists (specialists in conditions involving the blood) may play a primary role in management.
Sometimes people use the term oncologist to refer to medical oncologists (or possibly hematologists in the case of blood cancers). These physicians’ primary role is to administer anti-cancer drug therapies, including chemotherapy and biotherapy (treatments that stimulate the immune system to fight the cancer), and they often assume an added responsibility of coordinating the care among the other physician members of the cancer treatment team.
Oncology nurses include several groups of highly trained individuals who are involved in multiple components of cancer care. In addition, nurses may serve a vital role in responding to your telephone or online requests for general information regarding cancer management or dealing with concerns you may have about a particular problem.
A relatively new subset of nurses is known as oncology nurse navigators. These nurses serve as care coordinators. They have both clinical knowledge and administrative knowledge, enabling them to answer clinical questions and figure out how to identify and eliminate barriers to timely and appropriate cancer treatment.
Radiation oncologists and therapists
Radiation oncologists are physicians who have received special training in administering several types of radiation therapy to manage cancer. This includes both external radiation (delivered from a machine outside the body) and internal radiation (for example, implanted radioactive sources; this is also known as brachytherapy).
Radiation oncologists work directly with cancer surgeons and medical oncologists to coordinate efforts to give you the best possible outcome. These highly trained physicians are involved in both curative treatment approaches and alleviating the distressing symptoms of more advanced cancers (known as palliative care).
Although your radiation oncologist develops your regimen, radiation therapists are the healthcare professionals who deliver the doses prescribed by your radiation oncologist and who monitor your condition and the effectiveness of your treatment. Your radiation therapist is the radiation therapy team member you’ll have the most interaction with.
The term surgical oncologist can pertain to a number of types of surgeons who have been trained in surgical cancer management in particular areas. This includes general surgeons, urologists, gynecologic oncologists, head and neck cancer surgeons, neurosurgeons, plastic surgeons, and thoracic surgeons.
Radiologists and pathologists
Radiologists and pathologists are both essential in diagnosing cancer, but they generally play behind-the scenes roles, so you’re unlikely to ever meet them. Radiologists review your imaging studies to make a diagnosis, whereas pathologists make a diagnosis based on the appearance of your biopsy specimens. Both radiologists and pathologists are highly trained medical doctors.
Social workers have training and expertise in the often complex social and psychological issues surrounding cancer and its management. For example, you may have serious concerns regarding employment, how to arrange transportation to appointments, and insurance matters. A social worker can play a truly critical role in helping you and your family successfully navigate such issues.
Psychiatrists and psychologists
The terms psychiatrist and psychologist are often used synonymously, but there are some key differences between these professions. Psychiatrists are medical doctors; they have to receive an MD before they complete an additional four years of training in mental health. In contrast, psychologists have a doctoral-level degree in psychology (either a PhD or a PsyD), so they aren’t medical doctors and often can’t dispense medications. Both are able to provide talk therapy, though.
In some cases, the support and direct intervention of a psychiatrist or psychologist may be helpful or even essential in permitting you to deal with your particular circumstances. This is particularly true if you develop depression, because depression reduces quality of life and can lead to worse outcomes.
Both cancer and its treatment can make it difficult to carry out normal activities of daily living. A rehabilitation specialist can be invaluable in helping find solutions for the physical limitations you’re facing. Not having to struggle through such issues can profoundly improve your overall quality of life.
Dietitians are essential members of the cancer care team. These professionals focus on all aspects of nutrition that have the potential to optimize treatment outcomes while also reducing the risk of side effects and managing cancer- and treatment-related symptoms as they occur, improving quality of life.
Dietitians assess for any nutritional deficiencies at diagnosis that may interfere with successful cancer treatment. When severe malnourishment is present, either due to the cancer or an unrelated issue, you’re at a major disadvantage when dealing with the anticipated side effects associated with an intensive treatment program.
Dietitians are also responsible for monitoring your care throughout your cancer treatment journey. Depending on your specific circumstances, your dietitian may recommend nutritional supplements or other strategies in an effort to maintain your weight and prevent malnutrition.
A dietitian can also counsel and educate you about how to move toward a more nutrient-dense diet to manage conditions like diabetes and high cholesterol, while maintaining a healthy body weight and reducing the risk of a recurrence or a secondary cancer after treatment.
Home health aides
Sometimes having someone in the home to provide assistance during cancer treatment may be helpful, particularly if you don’t have family or friends who are able to provide the care you require. Home health aides can assist with tasks like bathing, cooking, shopping, and cleaning, or perform nursing functions like drawing blood, caring for wounds, providing pain medications and other meds, or checking vital signs.