Being diagnosed with cancer can be overwhelming. Find out about the members of your team who’ll be there to treat you.
If you or a loved one has recently been diagnosed with cancer, it can be a very difficult and confusing time. On top of all the emotions you’re dealing with, you’ll need to make decisions about your medical care. These will include choosing the members of the team who’ll treat your cancer and support you throughout the process. You’ll likely have not just one, but several, or even many, cancer doctors. It may be hard to figure out who’s who at first, so let’s look at some types of doctors you may be working with.
“Treating a patient who has cancer requires the coordinated efforts of many different types of oncologists,” says Alicia M. Terando, MD, a surgical oncologist at Keck Medicine of USC and associate professor of clinical surgery at the Keck School of Medicine of USC. “For example, there are surgical oncologists, who remove the cancer; medical oncologists, who give chemotherapy, immunotherapy and/or targeted therapies either before or after surgery; and radiation oncologists, who deliver radiation therapy, either on its own or at the same time as chemotherapy.”
Doctors who specialize in certain treatments
The following types of doctors have expertise in particular cancer treatments:
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- Surgical oncologist: A surgical oncologist performs surgery to biopsy or remove tumors and place ports for chemotherapy. For localized, solid tumors, such as breast or colon cancer, Terando says that a surgical oncologist is typically the first person a patient with a new cancer diagnosis will see.
“Surgical oncologists are knowledgeable about other frequently used treatments as well, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, and they work closely with medical oncologists and radiation oncologists to perform surgery at the appropriate time relative to these other treatments,” she adds. “This helps maximize survival outcomes and minimize complications.”
- Medical oncologist: A medical oncologist specializes in treating cancer with medicines, such as chemotherapy, along with new and exciting medical therapies like immunotherapy, targeted therapy and biological therapy. This doctor may also act as the team leader to help coordinate your care.
- Radiation oncologist: A radiation oncologist is an expert at using radiation to wipe out cancer cells in the body or slow their growth. There are several different kinds of radiation therapy, and they work for many types of cancer. Radiation is sometimes the only cancer treatment a person needs, but it’s often used in conjunction with other therapies.
Terando adds that oncologists from the different specialties will meet together regularly to discuss and decide on a treatment plan for each of their patients. “In addition, there may be multidisciplinary clinics, where patients can come in and meet all of the providers who will be part of their care — such as a medical oncologist, surgical oncologist, radiation oncologist and plastic surgeon, as well as a genetic counselor, physical therapist and dietitian — all on a single day,” she says. “This works well, because by the time patients leave for the day, they have a treatment plan in place.”
Doctors who treat specific types of cancer
In addition to doctors who specialize in different ways to treat cancer, there are doctors who specialize in the different cancers. Depending on the type of cancer you have, your team may include these doctors:
- Hematologist: This type of doctor is an expert in treating blood disorders, including cancers of the blood and bone marrow. If you have leukemia, lymphoma or myeloma, you’ll see a hematologist as part of your team.
- Gynecologic oncologist: Just as a gynecologist is a specialist in the female reproductive organs, a gynecologic oncologist specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer of the female reproductive system.
- Urologic oncologist: If you have prostate cancer, your urologist was likely the doctor who diagnosed you. Urologists specialize in conditions of the urinary tract, while a urologic oncologist is further trained in treating cancers of the urinary tract (in both men and women), as well as those that develop in the male reproductive organs.
Whatever your specific type of cancer, the doctors on your team will help with not just your medical, but also your emotional, well-being. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable with them. Together, you’ll discuss options and come up with a cancer treatment plan that’s best for you.
by Tina Donvito