Understanding Your Cancer Care Team
Many people work together to provide care for you during cancer treatment. This guide is intended to help explain the roles of your care team members in hopes of making it easier for you to identify each one. Based on your needs, you may need to see some or all of the cancer care specialists listed below.
Oncologist: a doctor who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer. Oncologists can specialize in several different types of oncology within this medical field, which include:
- Medical oncologist: A doctor who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, such as targeted therapy or immunotherapy. A medical oncologist often leads the cancer healthcare team for a patient undergoing cancer treatment. A medical oncologist also gives supportive care and may coordinate cancer treatments given by other specialists.
- Hematologist: A hematologist is a physician who specializes in disorders of the blood, bone marrow, and lymphatic systems. Most hematologists are also board certified in oncology and can treat many types of cancers, including blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.
- Surgical oncologist: A surgeon who has special training in performing biopsies and other surgical procedures on cancer patients. In some cases your cancer surgery will be performed by a general surgeon or a surgeon who specializes in an area of the body such as breast, gastrointestinal, endocrine, etc.
- Radiation oncologist: A doctor who has special training in using various types of radiation therapy to treat cancer. Radiation oncologists often work with a Medical Dosimetrist and/or a Medical Physicist to ensure treatment plans are uniquely tailored to both the patient and their cancer.
- Gynecologic oncologist: An oncologist who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive organs, such as uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancers. In most cases, the gynecologic oncologist will perform any surgery required for these types of cancer, as well as serve in the role of cancer treatment coordinator for their patients, bringing in other team members as needed.
- Neurologic oncologist: A physician specially trained to diagnose and treat patients with brain tumors and other types of tumors of the nervous system.
- Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon: Plastic and reconstructive surgeons help repair any damage that cancer treatment caused to the body of the patient.
Clinical Team Members
Oncology nurse: A registered nurse who specializes in caring for and educating patients who have cancer. An oncology nurse is often your first line of communication about how you’re feeling during treatment and the side effects you are experiencing. Some of their duties include, but are not limited to:
- Monitoring physical conditions
- Providing emotional support
- Administering chemotherapy and other treatments
- Managing patient symptoms and side effects
- Educating and counseling patients and their families about cancer treatment
- Organizing relevant referrals for patients to other healthcare providers such as social workers, dieticians, or speech and language pathologists
Radiation Therapist: A professional who works in the field of radiation oncology. A radiation therapist plans and administers radiation treatments to cancer patients.
Nurse Practitioner: Also called an advanced practice nurse, APN, or NP, this is a registered nurse who has additional education and training in how to diagnose and treat disease. Nurse practitioners are licensed at the state level and certified by national nursing organizations. These certifications allow NPs to provide both primary and specialty healthcare.
Physician Assistant: Physician assistants, also known as PAs, operate under the supervision of a doctor but share many of the same responsibilities of a medical doctor, with the exception of a few major procedures (including surgery). They practice medicine on teams with physicians, surgeons, and other healthcare workers. They’ll examine, diagnose, and treat patients in the same way a physician would, making them a valuable part of the cancer care team.
Patient navigator: Someone who helps guide cancer patients from diagnosis through survivorship. Patient navigators, also sometimes called nurse navigators or patient educators, can be nurses, social workers, or volunteers. Some of their duties include, but are not limited to:
- Assisting patients with the screening, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up of cancer care
- Helping patients communicate with their healthcare providers so they get the information they need to make informed decisions about their health care
- Helping patients set up appointments for doctor visits and medical tests; and get financial, legal, and social support
- Working with insurance companies, employers, case managers, lawyers, and others who may have an effect on a patient’s healthcare needs
Registered Dietitian: A registered dietitian (or nutritionist) is an important part of the cancer care team, helping translate nutrition goals for the best possible treatment outcomes. A dietitian will work with patients, their families, and the rest of the medical team to manage the patient’s diet during and after cancer treatment.
Genetic Counselor: A specialist who assesses and analyzes disease risk among individuals and their families, helping them understand the ways genetics can affect life. They provide information and support to other healthcare providers, or to individuals and families concerned with the risk of inherited conditions, such as cancer.
Physical Therapist: A physical therapist helps design individual rehabilitation programs that can help cancer patients build strength, reduce stress, regain independence, maintain energy, and improve their overall quality of life.
Supportive Care Team
Social worker: A licensed professional who counsels people affected by cancer, providing emotional support and helping people access support services and the appropriate community resources. Some of the needs that social workers will commonly identify and assist with include:
- Transportation and housing needs
- Financial concerns that you may have about paying medical bills, rent, or utilities
- Limitations you may have independently performing daily life needs, such as bathing, cooking, or dressing
- Support for mental health, emotional health, or self-image concerns
- Advanced care planning and documenting your future healthcare wishes
Financial counselor: A person who works with patients and their families to help them reduce stress or hardship related to the cost of cancer treatment. Financial counselors (sometimes called financial navigators) help patients understand their out-of-pocket expenses and what their health insurance plans may cover. Financial counselors may also help patients set up payment plans, find cost-saving methods for treatments, and improve access to healthcare services that the patient needs.