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Cancer Care Team Roles

Head and neck cancer is likely to be managed by a team of health care professionals. You may see some of these team players only once or for a short duration, whereas others you may see during most of the treatment course. There are some members of the team, such as a pathologist or a head and neck radiologist, that you may never meet at all, but expertise in evaluating your pathologic slides or your imaging studies may be vitally important.

Who should be on this team? Whether or not you have some of these members on your team depends on your individual treatment plan. You may only require surgery and not need radiation, so you may only work with a surgeon and not a radiation oncologist. Your cancer care team may include the following team members:

  • Registered nutritionist: Ideally, a registered dietitian should assess the patient at baseline and periodically throughout his or her disease course. The dietitian will provide strategies to deal with treatment side effects. In addition, the dietitian may need to be consulted if a patient loses a significant amount of his or her ideal body weight.
  • Speech pathologist: A baseline assessment of swallowing in addition to the ability to speak should be evaluated.The speech pathologist will recommend strategies and exercises to be performed during treatment and post-treatment to maintain or improve swallowing and speaking function. Many patients need rehabilitation with a speech pathologist post-treatment. Between 34 to 70 percent of head and neck patients will develop speech impairment during the course of their treatment.
  • Cytopathologist: A health care professional who uses a microscope to evaluate cells.
  • Pathologist: A health care professional who uses a microscope to evaluate tissue; a pathologist will play a role in diagnosing the disease.
  • Radiologist: A health care professional who specializes in evaluating images and will evaluate extensiveness of the disease; this health care professional will also play a role in diagnosing the disease.
  • Radiation oncologist: A physician who uses radiation therapy to treat cancer.
  • Surgeon: A physician who will physically cut the tumor out of the patient and/or reconstruct anatomic structures compromised from the removal of the tumor.
  • Prosthodontist/dentist: Radiation can cause cavities, so you may wish to consult a dentist before treatment.You 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, and a prosthodontist specializes in creating a prosthesis to help you restore functions that may have been affected by your surgery.
  • 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 is likely to be a specialist who you will interact with at several points during your cancer journey.
  • Social worker: Works with the patient and the patient’s caregivers to address their psychological well being.

Other health care professionals may work with you and/or the cancer care team, depending on your needs. For example, a psychiatrist may be part of the team. Alternatively, an addiction specialist may be a member of your team.

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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)