Receiving a breast cancer diagnosis is earth shattering in so many ways. In addition to the emotional and physical trauma, the stress of navigating the system and learning about your options only adds to the overwhelming feelings of helplessness.
Of course, you have probably heard that “knowledge is power.” This is especially true after a diagnosis. Knowing what to expect and understanding your options can make the difference between a horrible experience and one in which you come out feeling empowered.
To start with, you will want to know the titles of the various physicians, nurses, technicians, etc. that will be helping you fight your breast cancer. Here are some common titles that are worth learning and knowing.
Diagnosticians: If you have received your diagnosis, you have already encountered this part of the team. These are the ones who work around the clock to make sure that a diagnosis is caught early, increasing chances that your breast cancer will be discovered and removed early on. These include:
- Radiologists who read the images of your organs and tissues, searching for signs of disease.
- Pathologists who look at your tissues under a microscope to search for cancer and to diagnose the specific kind of cancer cells present.
- Genetic counselors who provide tests to see if there are genetic risks or genetic predispositions for certain kinds of cancers, which helps you and your family work on managing the risks.
Surgical Oncologists (Breast Surgeon): Surgical oncologists are the breast surgeons charged with removing the cancer during a surgical operation. It is recommended that you seek out a breast surgeon who is experienced and has performed a high number of such operations, which include biopsies, lumpectomies and mastectomies. Sometimes this will become your main physician.
Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons: After or concurrent with breast surgery, these medical professionals work to decrease the scarring and to rebuild the affected breast, if you choose. If you are considering breast reconstruction or even just want to discuss it a bit, make sure to contact a plastic surgeon early on in your diagnosis. If you don’t know where to begin, ask your surgical oncologist for a recommendation. You may also read our article on choosing a plastic surgeon.
Radiation and Medical Oncologists: These are the physicians who will be treating your cancer. They should work on a customized plan for each individual that will aggressively fight the cancer while minimizing both the side effects and long-term damage from the treatment.
Nurses: Nurses will be an integral part of the process each step of the way and will be the members of your team that you are likely to have the most contact with. There will be nurses during diagnosis, surgery, treatment and beyond. You should be able to turn to your nurses for most of the practical matters surrounding the process.
Primary Care Physician (General Practitioner): Your primary care physician should continue to manage your health in all other aspects and can also be a great source of information.
Psychologists, Counselor and Social Workers: These are the people that can help you manage the emotional and psychological effects of a diagnosis and treatment. Cancer is not only a physical trauma but involves a roller coaster of emotions and affects the entire family and your relationships.
Nurse Navigators and Patient Navigators: “Navigators” can be crucial in helping guide you through the system and get you the resources you need to make the best decisions. They are a huge practical help as a part of your medical team. If you are not assigned a navigator immediately, ask your hospital and/or support group whether there are nurse or patient navigators available in your area. These individuals know the system better than you can and will be able to advocate for you and help you advocate for yourself.
Physical Therapists and Rehabilitation Specialists: Rehabilitation and physical therapy can be necessary, especially if cancer necessitates very complicated procedures or intensive treatment. These are the doctors who will help you get physically back in shape so that you can function when you return to your daily life.
There may be other medical professionals also involved in your care but these are the most common. This is a life changing experience and it is important that you have a diverse team of people that you feel has the experience and offers you the options you feel comfortable with.