Cancer Care Guide: Who Are the Doctors?

The diagnosis and treatment of cancer is complex and multiple healthcare professionals play a role in providing comprehensive care to patients.

Oncology Physicians

Physicians are either medical doctors (MDs) or osteopathic doctors (OD) and many complete additional training in specific medical conditions, such as oncology. As cancer patients receive their diagnosis and then proceed through treatment, they may see more than one type of oncology physician. Often there are also other oncology specialists behind the scenes providing important services as well.

Medical oncologists are specialized internal medicine physicians and experts in treating cancer with chemotherapy. They care for patients from initial diagnosis through the course of the disease, discussing treatment options, managing pain and treatment side effects, and consulting with other physicians as needed.

Some oncologists specialize in specific types of cancer. The most common specialties are pediatric, gynecologic, and urologic cancers. Hematologists specialize in cancers of the blood (lymphoma and leukemia) and related tissues, such as bone marrow and lymph nodes.

Diagnosing cancer may require multiple diagnostic procedures. Radiation oncologists use x-rays or ultrasound, surgical oncologists remove tissue samples (biopsy,) and pathologists analyze results of lab tests and examine biopsy samples to determine the specific type and nature of a patient's cancer. Radiation oncologists and surgeons also treat cancer by administering radiation to kill cancer cells or surgically removing tumors when possible.

You should choose an oncologist who has experience caring for patients with your type of cancer. Specialists in less common cancers often practice in large cancer centers and medical teaching facilities, rather than community hospitals.

Multi-Disciplinary Teams

Cancer centers are moving towards a multi-disciplinary team approach to cancer care, which puts the patient at the center of a well-coordinated network of health professionals. A multi-disciplinary approach recognizes that cancer is more than a tumor; it's a disease that touches all aspects of patients' lives.

Multi-disciplinary cancer teams may include medical, surgical, and radiation oncologists; oncology nurses; a physician's assistant; oncology social worker; rehabilitation therapist; dietitian; and chaplain.

You'll likely interact most frequently with your oncology nurse. Oncology nurses provide patient education, coordinate and facilitate care, provide psychosocial support, and may administer chemotherapy. In fact, many cancer programs have designated specialists (who are usually nurses) called patient navigators. As the name implies, these professionals are there for patients (and their families) from diagnosis through post-treatment care, providing education, streamlining the process, securing additional patient resources when needed, advocating for the patient, and—most importantly—providing emotional support.




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