Who's on Your Healthcare Team?

Getting to know your healthcare team

With a cancer or blood disorder diagnosis, you’ll have a whole team of healthcare specialists dedicated to your treatment and recovery. Learn everyone’s role in helping you reach your goals. 

The moment you receive a diagnosis, your healthcare team begins working for you. 

Experts in a variety of fields, from medicine to social work, will work with you to develop your personalized treatment plan. Some team members will be in constant contact, while others will show up occasionally. Each patient is unique, which means healthcare teams are unique for everyone. They also evolve over time, as your health needs change.

Although each doctor’s office operates differently, these are professionals who play a key role on most healthcare teams. Most patients agree it’s important to consult with each professional before deciding on a treatment plan.

Primary Care Team

  • Primary Care Physician. Even though your primary care physician doesn’t specialize in cancer treatment, they may remain a key player on your healthcare team. Your primary care physician can provide your oncologist and other specialists with medical records as well as help with side effect management.

  • Medical Oncologist. In many cases, your medical oncologist serves as the “quarterback” of the team, either for the entire course of treatment, or switching out with another specialist at different phases of care. Medical oncologists diagnose and your treat cancer.

  • Radiologist. Radiologists also play an important role in diagnosing cancer. They’re the specialists who analyze imaging tests (CT scans, MRIs, x-rays) to help determine if cancer is present.

  • Radiation Therapist. The person who controls the radiation therapy equipment is known as a radiation therapist. They get the patient into position, target the equipment and administer the treatment.

  • Pathologist. Pathologists are integral in cancer diagnosis. They specialize in the analysis of cells, tissue and organs and they are the experts who analyzes lab tests.

  • Surgical Oncologist. Surgical oncologists perform surgeries for biopsies and remove tumors, along with the surrounding tissue.

  • Plastic Surgeon. If surgical removal of cancer requires reconstruction or cosmetic repairs, the plastic surgeon works closely with your surgical oncologist before, during and after surgery to help meet your cosmetic expectations established during treatment consultation.

  • Radiation Oncologist. Radiation oncologists use radiation therapy to treat cancer. As there are various radiation approaches, radiation oncologists work closely with you to determine the treatment that aligns with your desires and expectations.  

  • Nurse Practitioner. A nurse practitioner has received advanced education, training and clinical experience in a particular area of practice. Oncology nurse practitioners specialize in cancer treatment and play a very active role in managing treatment plans. Your nurse practitioner works closely with your oncologist—many times stepping in for the oncologist—and helps ensure your medical needs are met.

  • Physician’s Assistant. Another person you may also get to know well is your physician’s assistant, who works under doctors to provide a variety of services including physical exams, assisting with surgeries, administering chemotherapy and counseling patients.

  • Oncology Nurse. Many people find their oncology nurse to be the center of their healthcare team. Oncology nurses serve as the facilitator between patients and medical staff while providing medical care, physical exams and administering medication. Oncology nurses may also be triaging and responding to your messages, phone calls, and handling administrative work.

  • Case Manager. Your case manager is your point of contact throughout the entire treatment process. They’re usually an employee of your cancer center, and will help coordinate treatments and appointments while providing general guidance throughout treatment. They can also help you manage health insurance issues and locate external resources, when needed.

  • Patient Navigator. As the name suggests, the job of a patient navigator is to guide an individual from diagnosis to survivorship. They’re often social workers, nurses or volunteers with special training and will be an invaluable resource who can point you in the right direction at any time.

Possible Extended Care Team

  • Palliative Care Doctors/Specialists. Palliative care focuses on providing relief from the side effects and symptoms of cancer and its treatment.  These specialists work one-on-one with oncologists and oncology nurses to improve your quality of life while adhering to the treatment plan.

  • Psychiatrist. The stress of dealing with a cancer diagnosis can impact anyone’s cognitive health. Treatments, medications and side effects can also cause a range of hard-to-manage emotions. Psychiatrists help identify the primary cause of mental distress and are able to prescribe medications if necessary.

  • Psychologist. Another mental health specialist who could become a part of your healthcare team is a psychologist. Generally, psychologists are recommended if talk or cognitive behavioral therapy is needed.

  • Counselor. Counselors can specialize in cancer counseling and provide mental and emotional support before, during and after treatment.  

  • Oncology Social Worker. A number of hospitals and cancer centers employ social workers who help manage patient care with emphasis on social and emotional needs.

  • Pharmacist. Many of today’s cancer treatments can be administered at home through regular prescription medication. You may also get to know your local pharmacist if you’re prescribed medications for side effects.

  • Physical Therapist. In some cases, cancer can impact your physical capabilities. Some treatments and side effects of cancer can necessitate physical therapy to regain motor skills or learn how to adjust to physical changes. If surgery is required for treatment, physical therapy may be needed to help improve recovery.

  • Occupational Therapist. An occupational therapist helps people who are injured or ill improve and develop skills needed to perform daily tasks. By doing so, occupational therapists help people remain as independent as possible and improve their quality of life.

  • Pain Specialist. Pain is a common side effects of cancer treatment, and pain specialists are experts who help in its management.  Pain specialists can work as a part of a team or on their own. Some cancer treatment centers now have pain specialists on staff.

  • Dietician. There are oral and gastrointestinal side effects that can alter your diet during treatment. Your diet also influences your general health and provides the essential nutrients your body needs to function and fight cancer. If you’re having difficulty following your doctor’s dietary recommendations, a dietitian can help. Dieticians have a degree in a nutrition related program and are registered with the Commission on Dietetic Registration (CDR). Nutritionists provide services similar to those of a dietician, but are not required to have a formal education or registration. Especially in oncology, nutritionist are fully trained to help you meet your nutritional needs. 

Additional Support

  • Caregiver. They may not have a medical degree, but your caregiver is one of the most important players on your healthcare team. They are your primary source of care outside of the doctor’s office. Typically, a significant other, parent, sibling or child acts as your caregiver during cancer treatment. They help with daily tasks like taking medication, preparing food, setting appointments, attending appointments with you as a second set of ears and providing support to help you avoid being overwhelmed.

  • Home Health Nurse/Aid. Today, many caregivers also work full-time jobs. If you need help around the house while your caregiver is gone, home health nurses or aides can be a good solution. Home health nurses provide care at your residence as well as assistance with everyday tasks. They can also provide suggestions on how to arrange your home or alter routines to make them easier.

  • Support Groups. Most people find support groups serve a vital role in recovery. They can help you avoid issues like isolation and depression and also allow you to talk to people with similar experiences.

  • Clergy Members. A number of people find support in faith. During treatment, a trusted clergy member can provide vital emotional and psychological support.

Communication is Key

Regardless of who you encounter along the continuum of care, remember: you are an expert on yourself, and are thus essential to the team. 

Don’t be afraid to ask questions or seek clarification if you don’t understand the answers. Don’t feel guilty or silly if you don’t know what a word means, and don’t worry about feeling bad or making a health care team member feel bad by questioning decisions. 

It’s your body, your treatment and you’re the one in charge. You have the right to be fully informed about your diagnosis, treatment, side effects and long-term health outlook.