a team you can trust

Image credit: FatCamera.

While you're still in the fog of your cancer diagnosis, the first thing you need to think about is putting together your medical team.

In most cases, this may not seem to be something YOU need to do.  However you cancer was discovered, the diagnostic team (mammogram, ultrasound, mri etc) would refer you to the next step in the process.  In the case of a potential tumor that is detected, the next person you talk to is a surgeon.

Much of this applies to detected tumors, or growths - blood cancers will take a slightly different path, but the general idea is the same.  At every step, there are options and decisions, and know that it can be comforting to talk to as many people (doctors, nurses, friends) as you can to help you feel that you are on the right path.

Your Surgeon

You are usually asked if you have a preference, but if you aren't, it may help to ask any friends, co-workers if they have surgeons they really love. You'll be discussing biopsy options, as well as your future oncology treatment with your surgeon, so if you have a preference, this is a good time to voice it.

Many of us, overwhelmed at this point, will just go see the surgeon that is recommended when the 'potential' cancer is detected. For the most part, that's fine. 

If a growth is detected, the first option the surgeon will give you is 'how to biopsy'. There's a range of options from an outpatient 'needle' biopsy that just draws a few cells, to a partial biopsy that will surgically remove a piece of the growth to examine, or a full biopsy that will remove the entire growth. There's plenty of information available on how to weight that initial choice.

After the biopsy, you'll hear back on whether the growth was found to be malignant or benign (non-cancerous), and the surgeon will likely do more work to determine if the cancer has spread. This will help them determine the 'stage' of the cancer.

Assuming you are hear reading this, you may already be at this stage, discussing your TREATMENT options. I always thought it was odd that this conversation usually starts with the surgeon, who is an expert at removing things and patching stuff up, but not an expert on oncology - but there it is, your surgeon will recommend what the oncologist he talked to recommends.

It's at this point, that I encourage you to request a few different names of oncologists.

Your Oncologist

You will be given a recommendation for an oncologist. Chances are, it will be a few weeks before treatment starts, so now is a good time to do you homework. You're going to be going through battle with this next team of doctors, make sure you really like them.

You've got one recommendation. Ask the receptionist at the cancer center (or surgeons office) if she knows of patients who had a 'favorite' oncologist, they often hear the personal stories from patients, so they're a good resource.  

Make appointments to see at least 2 oncologists to consult before you decide who to work with. Ask them questions about what they recommend for treatment. If you have a rare cancer, ask if there are trials for your specific cancer, and what the risks are of that. If you find one doctor you like much more than the other, then you'll be glad you took the time to see both.  

You're probably feeling quite vulnerable right now. Your oncologist should be someone who you feel comfortable with, even at your most vulnerable.

Your Radiation Oncologist

You may also be told to see a radiation oncologist. You rarely meet with the radiation oncologist, as your treatments will all be done through technicians, but they are still an important part of your team, and if you take the time to ask them questions, you'll learn a lot about their opinions of your other treatment choices, as well as whether their thoughts align with your own.

By the time you are working through radiation, you will be exhausted. You're tired of thinking, emotionally drained. Radiation technicians understand this, and help you get you past the finish line.

Your Consultant

Often hospitals will have someone on staff to help you plan out your cancer treatment team, but if they don't there are other options.

If you want to look into alternative treatments that will complement your conventional treatment, now is a good time to talk to a Naturopathic Doctor.  They will give you their thoughts on your treatment options as it relates to your specific case.  They may even have oncologists that they recommend.  It's a great place to feel like you have control over your treatment, and you can plan out each phase, while working with a doctor who can minimize the negative affects of treatment (ie protect your skin from the adverse affects of radiation).

There are also great resources, like Ralph Moss PhD, who specializes in consulting with patients about their cancer treatment, usually with a combined approach that takes advantage of all the options out there for your specific cancer.