Understanding Your Cancer Care Team

Patients who have been diagnosed with cancer may need to meet with several different cancer care specialists during treatment and recovery. This guide should help make it easier to understand the role that each person may play in cancer care.

Physicians

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.

  • Medical oncologist: A doctor who has special training in diagnosing and treating cancer using chemotherapy, hormone therapy, biologic therapy, and/or targeted therapy, as appropriate for each patient’s situation. A medical oncologist often serves in the role of the main health care provider 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.
  • Radiation oncologist: A doctor who has special training in using various types of external and/or internal radiation 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.  
  • Surgical oncologist: A surgeon who has special training in performing biopsies and other surgical procedures on cancer patients. In some cases 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.
  • Gynecologic oncologist: An oncologist who specializes in the diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive organs, including ovarian cancer, uterine cancer, vaginal cancer, cervical cancer, and vulvar cancer. 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 nurse who specializes in treating and caring for people who have cancer. An oncology nurse is often the first line of communication for patients to discuss how they’re feeling during treatment and side effects they’re experiencing. Some of their duties include, but are not limited to:  

  • Monitoring physical conditions
  • Managing patient symptoms and side effects
  • Providing emotional support
  • Administering chemotherapy and other treatments, under the supervision of a doctor
  • Educating and counseling patients and their families about cancer treatment

Radiation therapist: A professional who works in the field of radiation oncology. A radiation therapist plans and administers radiation treatments to cancer patients, under the supervision of a doctor.

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. Seeing an NP is similar to seeing a doctor in some cases. In cancer care, a nurse practitioner may manage the primary care of patients based on a practice agreement with a doctor.

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.

Nurse navigator: Sometimes referred to as a patient navigator or a patient advocate, a nurse navigator is a nurse who helps guide cancer patients through the healthcare system. Some of their duties include, but are not limited to:

  • Assisting 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 healthcare
  • 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

Medical assistant: Prior to meeting with your physician, you will meet with a medical assistant, who will review medical history and medications list for any changes since your last visit. The medical assistant will also record your vital signs for your doctor. (blood pressure, pulse and temperature) .  They work under the direct supervision of registered nurses or physicians and assist with a variety of tests and procedures.

Genetic counselor: A specialist who assesses individual or family risk for a variety of inherited conditions, such as genetic disorders and birth defects. 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

Palliative care: Palliative care nurse practitioners work closely with a multi-disciplinary team of medical professionals to coordinate patient care at all stages of their illness, while they are receiving their treatments and during follow-up care. Palliative care begins at diagnosis and continues during treatment and beyond to help patients improve their quality of life by treating their pain and symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, depression and anxiety as well as help in understanding and coordinating their care. 

Social worker: A professional trained to talk with people and their families about emotional or physical needs, and to find them 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 patients may have about paying medical bills, rent, or utilities
  • Limitations that patients 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 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.

Registered dietitian: A registered dietitian is an important part of the cancer care team, helping with cancer treatment and recovery. 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.

Sources: