How to Work with Your Cancer Team

Treating cancer is a team effort. You’ll be working with a large group of health care providers. Coordinating with all of them can be a big challenge. These strategies might help you through the process.

Identify Your Team Members

More than a dozen people could be involved in your cancer care.

Oncologist. This doctor specializes in cancer treatment and care. There are different types of oncologists:

The medical oncologist is usually the person in charge of your treatment.

Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist works to relieve your pain before, during, and after surgery, and throughout your treatment.

Palliative care specialist. The palliative care specialist will work to relieve the symptoms and stress of your treatment. The goal is to focus on your comfort and improve your quality of life.

Case manager. Your case manager works with your entire team to make sure you get the care you need. This is usually a nurse or nurse practitioner.

Patient navigator. This is someone who works with you to coordinate your care. They could help you find a doctor, fill out insurance forms, or explain your coverage.

Registered dietician. This is an expert on food and nutrition. He can advise you on what to eat during cancer treatment and afterwards.

There may also be nurses, psychologists, physical therapists, social workers, chaplains, and many others on your cancer team.

Be Your Own Advocate

Once you know all the members of your team, you'll want to form good relationships with them. Tell them how you're feeling. Be open and honest about any side effects or fears you’re having. Let them know if they're giving you too much or too little information. Not everyone’s the same.

Open up to your health care providers. Fill them in on your everyday life -- the kind of work you do, your family life, your hobbies, your spiritual beliefs and hopes for the future. Also tell them about special challenges you might have (maybe you’re having trouble finding someone to get you to and from the treatment center, for example).

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Take notes during your appointments. You may find it hard to remember everything you're being told so it helps to keep a record. Don't be afraid to ask your doctor to explain something in simpler terms if you don't understand what she’s saying.

Bring a list of questions to your appointments. Make sure to ask the most important ones first. Use a notebook, binder, or smartphone memo app to take notes. Also, keep track of things like:

  • the side effects of your treatment
  • which medicines you're taking, the dosages, and when you take them
  • the names and phone numbers of your healthcare team
  • any other details of your treatment

Keep track of what tests have been done. Don’t forget to ask when you should expect to hear back about the results. Always follow up if you haven’t been told about the results in a reasonable amount of time.

Find out who to call or contact between appointments. Your doctor may be able answer questions by email, if she‘s not available by phone. There may be a nurse of social worker you can count on as well.

Lean on Others

Friends and family are extremely important at times during cancer treatment. Invite someone to come along on your appointments. Not only can they give you moral support, they might catch information you miss. They can also take notes for you or ask questions about things you might not have thought about on your own.

Support groups can be important in helping you cope with your cancer diagnosis. Your treatment center will probably have some groups or know about them. Some nonprofit organizations go even further and may be able to match you up with someone who has survived the same type of cancer.

Take advantage of the support services at your cancer center. This may include services like psychological counseling, nutrition classes, and fitness training.

Learn More About the Type of Cancer You Have

Ask your doctor, case manager, or another member of your healthcare team to help you learn more about your diagnosis.

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There’s a lot of information about cancer on the Internet, but not all of it is trustworthy. The American Cancer Society, the CDC, and the Mayo Clinic are good places to start for reliable information. If you're not sure about the website you're using, look at its "About Us" section to get an idea of who is behind it.

Ask your doctor to explain any medical terms about your illness that you don't understand. You could also look at the National Cancer Institute’s Dictionary of Cancer Terms (cancer.gov/dictionary). It contains explanations for over 7,000 medical terms.

Recognize There Could Be Problems

Not everything’s going to be perfect. There will be frustrations. Perhaps your doctor doesn't have the bedside manner you’re looking for or someone on your team takes a long time to return your calls. Try to speak with your patient representative or case manager about the problem. If that doesn't work, consider changing doctors or treatment centers.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on May 11, 2019

Sources

SOURCES:

Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center: "Your Cancer Care Team."

U.S. National Library of Medicine: "Your cancer care team."

Canadian Cancer Society: "Working With Your Healthcare Team."

CancerCare: "Communicating With Your Healthcare Team."

American Society of Clinical Oncology: "Finding a Support Buddy."

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