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Working with Your Cancer Care Team

It's natural to feel out of control after being diagnosed with cancer. After all, this is a serious condition, and it can bring a lot of fear and uncertainty. Along with the person with cancer, family and close friends may feel their world has been upended.

What can you do to regain your equilibrium? Put together an expert team of health care professionals and be proactive.

Who's on your team?

Depending on the type and severity of cancer, there may be a wide variety of professionals supporting you throughout your care. For example:

  • Radiation or chemotherapy specialists

  • Surgical staff

  • Pharmacists

  • Dietitians

  • Physical therapists

  • Psychotherapists or social workers

  • Home-health aides

  • Spiritual advisers

  • Your health benefits plan advisor

  • The treatment center's business office staff

All of these team members are important, but some of the most central players are likely to be:

Your oncologist

This is your team's quarterback, the cancer doctor who calls the plays and stays on top of all the care you receive.

A warm bedside manner can be important, but medical competence and expertise are more so. To find a competent oncologist, consider getting a referral from a reputable facility that specializes in cancer treatment.

As with anyone on your health care team, the way you communicate with this physician is crucial.

Ask the doctor to speak in simple language instead of using complicated words. Ask "what if" questions: What if this nausea medication doesn't work, what do I do, whom do I call?

Family caregiver

As treatments and symptoms progress over time, one family member is likely to act as caregiver, the CEO in charge of your care. This is a critical yet often overwhelming role. It may involve assisting in managing side effects, scheduling appointments, chauffeuring, doing pharmacy runs, dispensing medications, overseeing diet and hygiene, paying bills, and giving emotional support.

Clinic nurse

This is the person you may call most often with questions or concerns about managing pain, nausea, or other symptoms. Don't hesitate to pick up the phone; that's what the nurse is there for.

Friends, neighbors and family

When well-meaning people ask if there's any way they can help, do more than offer thanks. Show them a list of specific tasks you need help with.

Spiritual and psychological support

The physical needs related to cancer seem obvious. At the same time, there may be emotional or spiritual issues that are just as urgent and valid, but which are neglected.

For both patient and caregiver, cancer and its treatments often bring sadness, depression, fear, anxiety, stress, and fatigue.

Family caregivers are called on to assume tasks and responsibilities that even five to ten years ago were done by intensive-care nurses.

Often they'll have put their entire lives on hold and are suffering from lack of sleep, financial concerns, or an emotional roller coaster of uncertainty.

Patients and caregivers shouldn't hesitate to seek help from a psychotherapist, counselor, and/or spiritual advisor.

Not only can professionals treat depression, anxiety, or other problems, but a third party can address topics the patient and caregiver may not feel comfortable discussing with each other, such as loss of control, fear of death, questions about an afterlife, or how to put one's affairs in order.

Staying organized

An excellent way to regain a sense of control is to keep a care notebook. Set up a ringed binder with the three sections listed below. Keep the binder handy and keep it updated.

  • People. In this section list each member of the cancer care team, along with the person's phone numbers and the role he or she plays. Better yet, ask team members for their business cards, and insert them in plastic sleeves designed for that purpose.

  • Doctor's visits. Record the date of each visit, who was there, what was discussed, and any treatment recommendations.

  • Medications. Enter the name of each medication, its purpose, the prescribed dosage and frequency, the prescribing doctor, and the date you started taking it.