Who Should Be on Your Head and Neck Cancer Care Team?

Health Writer
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When it comes to solving problems, teamwork can make a world of difference. So, for people living with complex cancers — such as those in the head and neck — having a team of doctors and other professionals with differing areas of expertise can lead to improved care. In fact, these "multidisciplinary" teams are considered the gold standard of cancer care. If you have been diagnosed with head and neck cancer, here’s a look at who might be on your cancer team.


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Your oncologist leads the team

An oncologist is a doctor who diagnosis and treats cancer. Oncologists generally specialize in treating patients with either medications (medical oncologist), surgery, or radiation. You may have several oncologists on your team, but more than likely, one will oversee your care and coordinate with other members of the team.


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Your head and neck surgeon tackles complex procedures

Most head and neck cancers are treated with surgery (sometimes followed by radiation therapy or other treatments). These surgeries can be quite complex because there are so many important structures in the head and neck in close proximity, so it’s important to have a physician who specializes in these types of surgeries. You also may also need reconstructive surgery to restore function or appearance after treatment.


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Your dentist helps manage oral care

Cancer or treatment for cancer of the head and neck can cause oral complications, including damage to the salivary glands or the structure of the mouth or throat. These complications can significantly impair your quality of life. A dentist or dental surgeon can help prevent and treat many of the oral complications that arise from cancer, such as dry mouth (xerostomia), cavities, and periodontal disease.


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Your patient navigator advocates for your needs

Patient navigators (sometimes called patient advocates) can guide you and your family through the ins and outs of cancer care, from initial screening and diagnosis through treatment and survivorship. A navigator is often a nurse or social worker. They ensure you get the right care at the right time, answer questions, and help with the logistics of cancer care (for example, insurance coverage or finding sources of financial assistance).


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Your radiologist provides key therapy

You may have both a diagnostic and therapeutic radiologist on your cancer care team. A diagnostic radiologist may use a positron emission tomography (PET) scan to look for cancer that has spread. Another radiologist might treat your cancer with special types of radiation therapy. Intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) is an important tool for treating head and neck cancers because it delivers focused radiation to tumors while sparing nearby structures from the harms of radiation.


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Your speech-language therapist helps you communicate

Because so many head and neck cancers require surgery, you may experience complications around speaking, chewing, or swallowing (dysphasia). A speech-language therapist can help you rehabilitate your voice and regain your ability to swallow and eat.


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Your registered dietitian guides nutrition decisions

Getting proper nutrition during cancer treatment is critical in keeping up your strength and ensuring you don’t become malnourished. Cancer treatment can also cause side effects, such as nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea, that can make it hard to get sufficient nutrition. Blistering in your mouth or throat also may make eating difficult. A registered dietitian ensures you get proper nutrition and calories by modifying your diet or providing supplementation.


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Your social worker connects your family with resources

Cancer is more than a physical diagnosis; it touches every aspect of your life and affects the whole family. Social workers help families cope with the entire experience of cancer, including social, physical, spiritual, financial, and emotional aspects. For example, a social worker can help you talk to your young kids about your cancer or help family members deal with the stress of caregiving. They can also help you find financial or community resources, like support groups.


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Your pathologist provides behind-the-scenes intel

Unlike other members of your cancer care team, you may never actually meet the pathologist. However, they play an important behind-the-scenes role, looking at sample cells from your tumor under a microscope. This provides key information about what type of cancer you have and how advanced it is. Your oncologist will use this to determine the best treatment. During treatment, the pathologist may help your oncologist determine if — or how well — you’re responding to certain types of therapy.


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Your oncology nurses coordinate care with finesse

Oncology nurses are nurses with additional expertise in caring for cancer patients. They assist in many aspects of coordinating your care, providing patient education, and, potentially, administering your cancer medications.


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Other key players round out your team

And it doesn't end there; your cancer health care team may also include your primary care provider, a spiritual advisor, and other health care specialists, depending on your unique needs.


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Don't forget your friends and family

And, last, but definitely not least: Family and friends are a crucial part of your team. Having a strong support team is invaluable. A primary caregiver, such as a spouse, parent, or adult child, can help you make difficult decisions about treatment, provide emotional and caregiving support, and advocate for your needs and wishes throughout your cancer journey.