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Become an Active Member of Your Treatment Team

As you begin treatment for breast cancer, you are going to meet many different people within the medical field. Your treatment team is going to consist of several different medical professionals, nurses, social workers, etc. They must communicate to each other about your case, as it is important for you to communicate your concerns as well, in order for you to receive the best possible care. They may have discussions about you, your body, and your life, which is why it is important for you to become an active member of your treatment team.

The following is a list of the medical professionals that will probably be included in your treatment team and a brief summary of what their responsibilities are.1

  • Primary care physician:  If you have a primary care physician, they are likely the doctor that examined you during a routine exam and found a mass or examined the mass that you found. Alternatively, they may have ordered your screening mammogram that raised suspicion for breast cancer. Often, this doctor is a family physician or an obstetrician-gynecologist. This doctor may have discussed your diagnosis with you and referred you to specialists. They will provide others on your treatment team with your medical history and any other pertinent information.
  • Radiologist:  This doctor is responsible for analyzing and interpreting your X-rays, mammograms, and ultrasound to help diagnose or confirm your breast cancer diagnosis. They may also perform an ultrasound-guided biopsy of the suspicious lesion noted in any of the imaging tests listed above.
  • Pathologist:  When you do have a breast biopsy, the piece of tissue that is removed gets sent to a pathologist who examines it, determines what type of cancer is present, the stage and many other details about the biology of the tumor. He or she will generate a report of this information, which is used by subsequent members of the team to guide your treatment.
  • Anesthesiologist:  This is the doctor who will give you medicines to put you to sleep for surgery and help control your pain immediately after surgery. They may help manage pain that is uncontrolled with conventional medicines if needed. You will meet them just before you have surgery.
  • Surgical oncologist:  A surgical oncologist is a type of surgeon that treats cancer by surgically removing it from the body. At some institutions, they also perform minor procedures such as breast biopsies or ultrasound-guided biopsies to assist in making a diagnosis before definitive treatment. Definitive treatment options consist of partial mastectomy (lumpectomy) with or without sentinel lymph node biopsy, modified radical mastectomy, skin-sparing mastectomy, etc. They will be involved in your care for some time around surgery and typically will follow you indefinitely for annual examinations.
  • Plastic surgeon/reconstructive surgeon:  If you need or desire breast reconstruction, this is the surgical specialist who will discuss your options with you.
  • Medical oncologist:  A medical oncologist is responsible for prescribing and administering chemotherapy, immunotherapy and hormone therapy drugs during your treatment if indicated. This doctor monitors your overall health during treatment and works closely with other specialists throughout the duration of your therapy.
  • Radiation oncologist:  A radiation oncologist is the doctor who determines whether or not you need radiation therapy, what kind of radiation you will require and for how long.
  • Radiation therapy technologist:  This person actually administers the radiation treatment ordered by your radiation oncologist.
  • Registered Nurse:  An RN has an associate or bachelor degree in nursing and has passed the state’s licensing exam. It is likely that you will encounter many RNs throughout the course of your treatment.
  • Nurse Practitioner:  A nurse practitioner is a mid-level provider with an advanced nursing degree. They are typically trained in primary care, can prescribe medicines and some can perform minor procedures. They have credentials that are between that of an RN and a physician.1,2
  • Oncology-certified nurse:  This is an RN that has taken and passed a certification exam that focuses specifically on caring for cancer patients. You will typically encounter them during your hospital stay and/or during office visits to your medical or surgical oncologist.
  • Physical therapist/occupational therapist:  If you have surgery, you may need physical therapy to teach you stretching exercises to speed your recovery. An occupational therapist will help you if you are having trouble with everyday activities as a result of your surgery/recovery.
  • Social worker:  As you go through your breast cancer treatment, you will encounter many situations that you may or may not have prepared for. I trained and licensed social worker can help you deal with these issues. He or she can help you with financial questions, child care issues, emotional problems, and many other types of problems that may arise.

Some members of the team will be temporary and fulfill a specific duty on the team, such as an anesthesiologist. Others will be more permanent, as they begin treatment with you, end it with you and follow you up for years to come. Knowing the roles of each person on your treatment team will help you know where to go when you have questions and what kinds of problems each one deals with.

References

1 Your Medical Team. (27 September 2010) Retrieved from Living Beyond Breast Cancer at: www.lbbc.org/Understanding-Breast-Cancer/Breast-Cancer-Basics/Your-Medical-Team

2 Shockney, Lillie D. (2010) John Hopkins Medicine Patients’ Guide to Breast Cancer. Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

3 Ibid

This article was originally published on July 27,2012 and last revision and update of it was 9/2/2015.