Understanding Your Breast Cancer Treatment Team

Note: Written by Susan Herndon, RN, BSN, Nurse Writer

After a breast cancer diagnosis, there are often several questions a patient may have. Who will treat my breast cancer? What specialist should I see? Will I need chemotherapy or radiation? Will I have to have surgery or take medication?

The list below will help explain the answers to some of the most common questions related to your cancer treatment team of doctors, nurses, and specialists. Not all patients will need the services of every specialist listed.

Medical Oncologist

A doctor who specializes in the field of cancer. This doctor will be the primary source guiding you throughout your care journey. The medical oncologist will work with your personalized treatment team to provide guidance for medications, treatment options, or specific details for care evaluating lab values, medication reactions, and results of treatment options.

The National Cancer Institute notes your medical oncologist will continue to be your direct guide from the start of diagnosis throughout your journey of cancer care. After completing cancer treatment, it is general practice to resume routine care with your primary care physician.

Surgical Oncologist

A doctor who specializes in cancer treatments involving removing tumors through a surgical approach. The surgical oncologist may request diagnostic scans to help find the best course of surgical treatment while collaborating with the medical oncologist to better guide your post-surgery outcomes. 

Radiation Oncologist

A doctor who specializes in cancer treatment using radiation. The radiation oncologist can design your treatment plan based on the type of cancer and location of any tumors. Not every cancer patient will need radiation as part of their treatment plan.

If indicated by the radiologist, the radiation team will guide you through the treatment process. The radiation team can include members such as a radiation oncology nurse who can provide patient education and help manage symptoms related to radiation care, along with a radiation technologist who operates the treatment machines.

Plastic Reconstruction Surgeon

A doctor who specializes in reconstruction of breasts with a surgical approach following cancer removal surgery or therapy. The plastic reconstruction surgeon can help guide the best surgical approach for your individualized outcome.

Interested in learning more about breast reconstruction? Click here to get NBCF’s free eBook “Guide to Breast Reconstruction,” including questions to ask at your appointment.

Genetic Counselor

This is a counselor who specializes in medical genetics and evaluates risks a patient may have for a genetic link to cancer. A genetic counselor evaluation is not necessary for every patient. If you have concerns about risks or a family history of breast cancer, speak with your doctor. The counselor may evaluate your family history, study any diagnostic exams, or medical history to help assess your risk. Patients may choose to see a genetic counselor after initial diagnosis.

For individuals with a family history of breast cancer, appointments with a genetic counselor could be taken as a preventative measure. For patients diagnosed with metastatic breast cancer, The National Comprehensive Cancer Network suggests having genetic testing.

Patient Navigator

This healthcare professional (sometimes called a nurse navigator) will be the cornerstone of your cancer treatment team. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that the patient navigator can help assist you by coordinating your care with your treatment team, providing educational information about your disease, and will continue to communicate with you throughout your treatment process.

As there may be potential barriers to care such as transportation concerns, childcare, or financial stress, the nurse navigator can help by connecting you to resources and support groups that may be able to help.


Remember, every patient may not need the services of each specialist listed, however, every patient can benefit from their own personalized treatment team.

While a breast cancer diagnosis may seem difficult to manage, you will not have to manage it alone. There is a team of health care professionals specifically designed for your treatment care journey. Providing support, guidance, and most importantly, personalizing your individual care plan with you in mind. 

Have additional questions? Want to share your experience? Leave a comment below to let us know your thoughts.

Sources:

National Cancer Institute. Medical Oncologist. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/medical-oncologist

National Cancer Institute. Radiation Oncologist. https://www.cancer.gov/publications/dictionaries/cancer-terms/def/radiation-oncologist

Cancer.Net. (2020, August). What to Expect when Having Radiation Therapy. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/radiation-therapy/what-expect-when-having-radiation-therapy

Eske, J. (2020, February 5). What is an Oncologist. https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/what-is-an-oncologist#types

Spader, C. (2018, January 19). Surgical Oncologist, Your Cancer Surgeon. https://www.healthgrades.com/right-care/cancer/surgical-oncologist-your-cancer-surgeon

Cleveland Clinic. (2021, September 27). Breast Reconstruction. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/treatments/16809-breast-reconstruction

Cancer.net. (2022). What to Expect When Meeting with Your Genetic Counselor. https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/cancer-basics/genetics/what-expect-when-meeting-genetic-counselor

Komen.org. Genetic Counseling and Genetic Testing. https://www.komen.org/breast-cancer/risk-factor/gene-mutations-genetic-testing/

Center for Disease Control and Prevention. (2021, December 9). Patient Navigation. https://www.cdc.gov/screenoutcancer/patient-navigation.htm

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