Cancer Care Team Roles

It is recommended that patients be managed at a high-volume center by an entire team of specialists with expertise in head and neck cancer.

Your loved one may see some of these specialists only once or for a short duration, whereas other specialists will work with the patient during most of the cancer journey.

Who should be on this team? Whether some of the potential members are on the team depends on the individualized treatment plan; for example, if surgery is the only treatment required, then you and your loved one may need to select surgeons but not a radiation oncologist.

Cancer care team roles

Some possible cancer care team members are listed below:

  • Cytopathologist: A health care professional who uses a microscope to evaluate cells to assist in the diagnosis of cancer.
  • Medical oncologist: A physician who specializes in several aspects of cancer care, such as diagnosis and the management of cancer (e.g., chemotherapy). The medical oncologist may interact with you and your loved one at several points during the cancer journey.
  • Pathologist: A health care professional who uses laboratory analysis of tissues to assist in the diagnosis of cancer.
  • Prosthodontist/dentist: Radiation can cause cavities. Therefore, your loved one may wish to consult a dentist before treatment. He or she might need to consult a prosthodontist since teeth, parts of the jaw or other structures such as the nose or the ear may need to be removed to treat the cancer. A prosthodontist specializes in creating prostheses (synthetic replacement parts) to help restore aesthetics and functions that may have been affected by cancer removal surgery.
  • Radiation oncologist: A physician who uses radiation therapy to treat cancer.
  • Radiologist: A health care professional who specializes in evaluating images and will evaluate the extensiveness of the disease; this health care professional will also play a role in diagnosing the disease.
  • Registered nutritionist: A registered nutritionist may assess the patient at baseline and periodically throughout the disease course. The nutritionist will provide strategies to deal with treatment side effects. In addition, the nutritionist may need to be consulted if a patient loses a significant amount of his or her ideal body weight.
  • Social worker: Works with the patient and the patient’s caregivers to address their psychological well-being. Other professionals who can assist with mental health issues include counselors, therapists, psychologists, psychiatrists or addiction specialists.
  • Speech pathologist: An evaluation of of swallowing and ability to speak may be recommended. The speech pathologist will recommend strategies and exercises for during and after treatment to maintain or improve swallowing and speaking function. Many patients need rehabilitation with a speech pathologist post-treatment. Between 34 and 70 percent of head and neck patients will develop speech impairment during the course of their treatment.
  • Surgeon: A physician or team of physicians who will physically cut the tumor out of the patient and/or reconstruct anatomic structures compromised from the removal of the tumor.

Other health care professionals such as neurosurgeons, opthalmologists, audiologists, physiatrists, specialized nurses, and palliative care physicians may work with your loved one and/or the cancer care team as needed.

These nurses, they do much, much more than provide medical care. They are counselors and friends at the same time. Lynn H. (wife of a tongue cancer survivor)