Not only does a woman with breast cancer have new diagnosis and a new goal in life (defeat the cancer!), but suddenly she has a team of people who are dedicated to helping her reach that goal.
A number of specialists and professionals play a role in a woman's breast cancer care and form her medical team. She might not need all of them — and she might not even meet all of them — but they are the people she's most likely to encounter on her treatment and recovery journey:
The team leaders:
The patient. The woman with breast cancer is the most important part of the team. Staying engaged and actively involved in treatment and care improves a woman's morale and sense of control and might improve health outcomes.
Oncologist. An oncologist is a doctor who specializes in breast cancer care. The oncologist will coordinate the care and treatment, effectively serving as the team leader. This doctor might also be called a medical oncologist or cancer specialist and is likely the one who will help decide on a treatment plan and will administer chemotherapy or hormone treatments. To become medical oncologists, doctors get their medical degree in internal medicine, do three years of residency in internal medicine and then spend two years in an oncology fellowship.
Anesthesiologist. If surgery is needed, this is the doctor who will administer medications to keep the patient comfortable and asleep during the procedure.
Chaplain. This is a trained faith leader who can help patients and families cope with the emotional and spiritual aspects of breast cancer, from diagnosis to post-treatment. Many hospitals have a chaplain on staff, but patients can include their own faith leader as part of their cancer care team if they prefer.
Diagnostic radiologist. This is a doctor who specializes in conducting and interpreting the results of imaging studies, such as X-rays, ultrasounds and MRIs (magnetic resonance imaging).
Dietitian. This is a professional who is trained to help people develop healthy diets. A dietitian who works with cancer patients often helps them find and prepare healthy foods that they can eat and enjoy during and after treatment. A dietitian (or nutritionist) is a good resource for women who are battling nausea and fatigue as part of their cancer treatment.
Gynecologic oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers that affect a woman's reproductive system, such as ovarian, uterine or cervical cancer.
Neuro-oncologist. This is a doctor who specializes in the effects of cancer and cancer treatment on the brain.
Oncology nurse. This is a registered nurse (R.N.) who has chosen to become certified to care for cancer patients.
Oncology pharmacy specialist. This is the person who prepares the drugs prescribed for treatment, under the supervision of the oncologist.
Oncology social worker. This is a professional who counsels cancer patients and their loved ones, helps with financial services and coordinates additional services that might be needed during and after treatment.
Pathologist. This is a doctor who analyzes samples of tissues and cells to identify specific types of cancer. This is the doctor who will determine whether a biopsy is cancerous.
Plastic surgeon. This is a doctor who will help develop a plan for scar minimization and reconstruction after surgery, if necessary. Options include prosthetics, implants and breast reconstruction from the woman's own body tissues. The doctor might also be called a reconstructive surgeon.
Primary care doctor. This is the doctor a woman normally sees health concerns. Although her primary care physician is not leading the cancer treatment process, the doctor can be a good resource for questions or concerns.
Psychologist. This is a professional trained in counseling, therapy or psychological interventions.
Radiation oncologist. This is the doctor who will oversee any radiation treatments that are needed.
Rehabilitation therapist. This is a professional who will help breast cancer patients regain their strength and range of motion after treatment. Some women will need occupational rehabilitation as well because of the cognitive effects of cancer treatment.
Surgical oncologist. This is the doctor who will perform any surgeries that are needed to remove the cancer. This doctor may play a lead role equal to that of the medical oncologist if the treatment requires substantial surgery. If a lumpectomy or a mastectomy is needed, this is the doctor who will perform those surgeries.
SOURCES: U.C. Barrett Cancer Center, University of Cincinnati; American Society of Clinical Oncologists (www.cancer.net)
Written by Madeline Roberts Vann, MPH
Reviewed by Susan L. Luedke, MD
St. Louis Cancer & Breast Institute
St. Louis University Medical Center
Last updated September 2008