How to Build and Lead a Cancer Care Team
If you've recently been diagnosed with cancer or you’re undergoing cancer treatment, you probably have a lot of doctors. There may be an oncologist, radiologist, surgeon, and possibly other doctors, too1. These physicians should be talking to each other to coordinate and monitor your care, but that doesn’t always happen in this fast-paced environment. In addition to seeing patients, oncologists also juggle administrative and research-related activities in any given week.
Ideally, your cancer team is communicating and sharing your reports and information regularly, without the need for you to step in. But you and your family are probably going to be your best care advocates because you're the most familiar with your needs. Here are some things to think about when you’re using a team approach to cancer.
If all of your doctors are within the same health system and sharing the same electronic health records, you may be in better shape than if your care is divided between different systems. There are a few reasons for this. First, the doctors probably work together regularly and see each other frequently. Also, it can take time to share reports and test results between health systems, whether they’re emailed, faxed or sent by mail. A healthcare system that shares electronic medical records has faster and more seamless access to these records, as they may be in the same computer system. That said, different health systems use different records systems, which are not always compatible. The bottom line is that if you’re going to an appointment where your records are needed, it’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure they have them. If there's any doubt, you can also obtain a copy of your records from your physician's office or print them from an online patient portal and take them with you to your visit.
Understand the different roles of the team members
It may be obvious which physician is directing your cancer treatment. Often it’s a medical oncologist, but other specialists in other areas of medicine can take this role, too. In addition, it’s possible to have a long list of people< you’re seeing once for a consultation or for occasional treatment. Here are some different types of healthcare professionals you might see during your cancer treatment:
- Medical oncologist - these doctors may prescribe your chemotherapy or other medication to treat your cancer
- Radiation oncologist - a physician who administers radiation therapy to a targeted tumor
- Surgical oncologist - performs surgery to treat cancer, often removing solid tumors
- Specialist - someone who treats your specific type of cancer or a specific medical issue
- The physician providing a second opinion
- Anesthesiologist, radiologist, and pathologist - these providers are not always seen by patients, but consult with a patient's physicians to provide insight or care related to the patient's cancer
- Genetic counselor - someone who examines your family's genetic history to try to predict certain conditions you might be at risk for
- Advocate, nurse navigator, or case manager - coordinates your care after diagnosis and throughout your treatment
- Nurses, technicians or technologists - delivers treatment or conduct the diagnostic/lab testing
It can get confusing to figure out who to contact in the various offices and which doctors need which records before an appointment. It may be helpful to keep a notebook with these tasks in it, including phone numbers, notes on who you talked to at each appointment or phone call, dates that requests were made, and when appointments are scheduled.
Key team member: the patient navigator
Some healthcare facilities have staff that can help you keep track of all of these appointments and information. The role is called different things like a patient or health navigator2 or a case manager. The navigator might schedule lab and doctor visits, and also direct you to other helpful resources, like nutrition counseling, support groups, counseling and other resources. This person can often save you time and hassles in scheduling appointments and help you track what needs to get done.
Going through cancer treatment can be difficult physically and emotionally. Coordinating your care and making sure the entire cancer team is on top of your needs and reports isn’t something most people sign up for or realize is important. However, you are your best advocate and the best person to guide your cancer team.
1. Your Cancer Care Team. Cancer Support Community. https://www.cancersupportcommunity.org/your-cancer-care-team. Accessed November 12, 2017.
2. Patient Navigators Help Cancer Patients Manage Care. American Cancer Society. https://www.cancer.org/latest-news/navigators-help-cancer-patients-manage-their-care.html. Accessed November 12, 2017.
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