What to Know About Your Care Team
Navigating diagnosis and treatment for small cell lung cancer (SCLC) can be overwhelming, but a helpful first step is to feel confident in the care team that is put in place to support you. It can be helpful to gain a greater understanding of each team member’s role so that you know which specialist to turn to in each situation that may arise, and check in with yourself when you feel like you need extra support. Oftentimes, there’s another professional who is trained to address that specific need. “I tell people when they're beginning this battle to put their army together,” said Annette, a mother and grandmother who has been living with SCLC for close to three years. A care team goes beyond your primary care doctor and oncology specialists. It will include many different types of healthcare professionals and trained specialists who will help you with things like medical concerns, emotional support, eating and nutrition, and managing insurance. Your team will include an oncologist, radiologist, special nurses trained in cancer care and other experts such as a registered dietitian, patient navigator, social worker and – most importantly – your family and loved ones. But always remember, you are at the center of this team.
How Do I Know Who I Should Have on My Team?
The short answer is that there will be many people who make up your care team. “When I first was diagnosed, I had a pulmonologist, a cardiologist, my oncologist, primary care doctor, and my regular OB/GYN,” said Montessa, who has lived with SCLC since 2006. “Everybody was in the loop about what was going on with my lung cancer.” Most likely you found out that you have SCLC from a specialist or surgeon in the hospital. You will then be referred to an oncologist who will be the ‘captain’ of your medical team and connect you to specialists based on the type of care you may need along the way. Remember that you should never be afraid to ask for further details on the members of your healthcare team, and what role they are playing. It’s important that trusted friends and family members are also in your corner during this experience, in addition to specialists who can help you navigate your care needs. This extended support system comes together with the common goal of supporting your physical and emotional well-being. There will be a series of doctors and specialists who are involved in your care. A few may include:
- Family physicians, nurse practitioners and internists: Your primary care doctor or nurse practitioners may have been the first to suspect or find the cancer. While your cancer care will be coordinated by an oncologist, many people continue to see their primary care doctor for non-cancer related health problems or to stay in touch with a doctor you may have known for a long time. Having your primary care physician as a part of the larger cancer care team will allow your doctors and nurses to better coordinate your care.1 “The nurse practitioner at the oncology clinic is the person who I am in touch with on a weekly basis if I have any questions, if I need any refills, if I'm having a symptom that I didn't have before, something that I'm not sure about,” said Annette.
- Oncologists: These specialists focus on treating cancer. There are three main types of oncologists:
- Medical oncologists treat cancer by using drugs, including chemotherapy or immunotherapies, which can sometimes be targeted. There is a possibility a medical oncologist may refer a patient to other specialists for treatment, depending on their diagnosis.1 “My oncologist is constantly looking at ways to treat small cell lung cancer and new things that come up,” said Kim, who lived with SCLC for five years.
- Radiation oncologists will use different types of radiation therapy to treat cancer.1
- Surgical oncologists use surgery to diagnose and treat cancer. This specialist will perform biopsies and remove tumors. For example, a thoracic surgical oncologist specializes in surgeries on lung tumors and other tumors found inside the chest.1
- Pulmonologists: This field of doctors diagnoses and treats lung diseases. They also have the expertise to treat problems caused by cancer or its treatment.1
In addition to these specialists, other healthcare professionals may play an important role in your care team, including:
- Oncology nurses: An oncology nurse, who specializes in treating and caring for cancer patients, may often be a major point of contact for you and your family.1 “They watch very carefully over you, making sure that everything seems to be going right,” Kim said. “They'll notice things about me that I didn't even know.”
- Patient navigators: These healthcare workers are specially trained to provide support and guidance throughout your cancer treatment. They can support you as you "navigate" through the maze of doctors' offices, outpatient centers and other components of the healthcare system.1
- Registered dieticians: Eating and nutrition can be challenging when going through cancer treatment. Many cancer centers have a registered dietician who can assist you with options to improve your nutritional health.1
- Rehabilitation specialists: These specialists, including physical therapists, speech therapists, occupational therapists and recreational therapists, can help you live as independently as possible as you navigate life with SCLC.1
- Social workers: Social workers, and other mental health specialists, are trained to speak with you and your loved ones about emotional or physical needs and help find support services and resources in the community.1 These professionals can be especially helpful when there are things you or a loved one who is assisting with your care need to talk about but don’t want to share with each other out of fear of upsetting them.
Even though having a team of trusted healthcare professionals is essential, don’t forget how important it is to have those who know you best by your side too. “I use my family a lot for support because they know when something's not right,” said Kim. “And they'll tell me, ‘Hey, I noticed this is different with you. Are you okay? Is there something that we can do for you? Do you need to go see another doctor?’ It is helpful to rely on people that are the closest to you, as they may notice things that you don't.” Just as important is making sure your teammates are up to the task to keep you going during the tougher stretches. “When you are pulling together a team, have people around you that are positive and can keep you lifted up,” Annette shared. “Try to have someone with you that wants to be there visiting with you, helping you through it.” Annette knows it’s not easy to take that first step to bringing your team together. “Asking for help is the hardest thing for some people. And you really do need to ask for help.”
- LUNGevity. Your medical team. https://lungevity.org/for-patients-caregivers/lung-cancer-101/your-medical-team. Updated February 16, 2021.
Accessed December 5, 2022.