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Your Cancer Support Team: Who’s on Your Side?

Build the Best Cancer Support Team for All Your Needs
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WebMD Feature

If you’ve just been diagnosed with cancer, you’re probably still reeling. You may be grappling with issues that are profound -- like life and death -- and mundane -- like who will do the laundry when you’re in the hospital?

But you won’t fight this alone. Of course, you’ll have your family and friends. And you’ll have your doctor. But your medical care won’t just be in the hands of a single MD. Instead, you’ll need a whole cancer support team to help you through this. “Good cancer treatment always requires a lot of people,” says Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minn.

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Of course, you may be wondering how this system works. How can you -- when you are probably feeling overwhelmed already -- pick an entire cancer support team? Here’s what you need to know.

Why Do You Need a Cancer Support Team?

Treating cancer often requires more than one approach -- not just chemotherapy for instance, but surgery or radiation, too. That usually means more than one doctor.

But good medical care is more than just treating the cancer itself. Cancer can affect every aspect of your life: your mood, your diet, and your family, to name a few. So you may need nurses, dietitians, therapists, and other experts on your cancer support team. People you may never meet -- like pathologists and anesthesiologists -- also help while working behind the scenes.

Having all of these experts on your cancer support team is invaluable. “Each member of the team can each bring a different perspective to diagnosis and treatment,” says Terri Ades, MS, APRN-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. “With more people on your team, you get more options.”

The Heart of Your Cancer Support Team: Your Doctor and Nurse

First things first: you need to start with a doctor. Usually this will be a medical or surgical oncologist, a doctor who specializes in treating cancer. Given the stakes, settling on an oncologist can be nerve-wracking. However, Harold J. Burstein, MD -- a staff oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School -- urges people not to fret too much.

"The essential part of picking a doctor is finding someone whom you can trust and with whom you can communicate. If you feel the doctor is being clear, and understands your needs, that is a good sign. Fortunately, there are many outstanding physicians around the country. In cancer medicine, as in most types of complex medical care, experience matters, and clinics or physicians with extensive familiarity with your kind of cancer can often provide care with insights not always available everywhere," says Burstein.

There are other things you should consider. For instance, see a doctor who’s been recommended, either by your personal physician, family, or friends. Also, make sure that your doctor has a lot of experience in treating your specific type of cancer. See these related articles about questions you could ask your doctor and about what to look for in a specialist before you begin to choose your cancer support team.

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