A doctor here, social worker there, nurses everywhere – you will meet many different caregivers before and after you are diagnosed with colon cancer. Maximize your care potential by learning who does what, what the "alphabet soup" of titles after their names means and who to contact when necessary.
Your energy should be spent fighting your colon cancer, not remembering the myriad caregivers who have assisted you along the way. Save energy by learning which medical professional can help you when you need it. The labyrinth of medical care can be overwhelming. Keep a list of healthcare providers and the role each one plays in your care.
Consider writing down the:
- Name and profession of each provider you encounter (radiologist, oncologist, enterostomal therapy nurse, etc.)
- Their role (treatment, testing, second opinion)
- Phone numbers and office hours
- Office address
- Appointment information and notes
If you have symptoms or concerns about colon cancer, you may be referred for screening tests. If you are diagnosed with colon cancer, you will meet a team of medical professionals trained to treat your cancer and address your physical and psychosocial needs. Along the way, you will meet many medical professionals, some of whom you may want to contact again in the future.
Primary Care Physician (PCP, M.D.) – Casually referred to as your family doctor, this medical professional is the starting point for your care. He or she will be able to order screening tests for colon cancer, review your symptoms or concerns and follow up with you after the tests.
Gastroenterologist (M.D. with or without fellowship -- FACG, FACP) – A medical doctor who has special training in diseases of the digestive system and colon. The gastroenterologist will perform your colonoscopy and may be the doctor who informs you that you have colon cancer. He or she will also follow up with you after your treatment, performing your routine colonoscopies and screening exams.
Physician Assistant (PA) – In many offices, a PA can examine, screen and order your tests in place of a physician. Depending on your doctor’s office, you may see the PA during your hospitalization or for follow-up examinations.
Pathologist (M.D.) – A medical doctor who specializes in examining microscopic tissue samples. This is the doctor who will examine your biopsy results, make a declaration of cancer and help your PCP grade and stage the cancer.
Nurse Practitioner (NP, FNP, ARNP) – Similar to a PA, the nurse practitioner may examine you, order tests, write prescriptions or complete routine follow-ups in place of your PCP.
Nurse (RN, LPN) – You will encounter nurses at each stage throughout your diagnosis, treatment and follow-ups for colon cancer. These nurses may specialize in family medicine, oncology, surgery or even stomal therapies (colostomies). The nurses are your advocates and teachers – don’t be afraid to ask them questions.
Radiologist (M.D.) – During colon-cancer screening exams, such as a double contrast barium enema or computerized tomography (CT) scan, a radiologist will read and interpret the test results and send them back to the provider who ordered the tests.
Genetic Counselor (L.G.C.) – Health professionals who help you navigate the results of your genetic testing. Genetic tests for colon cancer screening are not definitive – that is, they cannot predict your future with 100 percent accuracy at this time. What they can tell you is that your risk factors for colon cancer are increased based on genetic gene mutations that cause polyps, which can run in a family (such as familial adenomatous polyposis, hereditary nonpolyposis colorectal cancer syndrome, Peutz-Jeghers syndrome, juvenile polyposis or a familial history of inflammatory bowel diseases).
If your tests come back positive for colon cancer, you will meet the medical caregivers who will order, administer and follow you throughout your cancer treatment. Some of the professionals may overlap with your diagnosis professionals, but hold additional responsibilities in areas of treatment administration.
Surgeon (M.D.) – Depending on the severity and spread of your cancer, you may have multiple surgeons working on you at once. General surgeons are trained to operate on any part of the body. Surgical oncologists specialize in cancers, and colorectal surgeons have advanced training in digestive system surgeries.
Radiation Oncologist (M.D.) - A radiation oncologist may treat your cancer using radiation therapies. These medical doctors help you plan the number, intensity and length of your radiation therapy treatments.
Medical Oncologist (M.D.) – A doctor who is highly trained in cancer diagnosis, treatment and care. Once a diagnosis of cancer is made, the oncologist will usually assume your care, acting as your primary physician while coordinating multiple therapies (for example, surgery, chemotherapy and radiation).
Nurse, Infusion Nurse, Enterostomal Therapy Nurse (RN, ET Nurse) – During therapy, nurses will administer your chemotherapy, teach you how to care for surgical wounds or ostomies and help you deal with the physical and emotional hurdles of colon cancer.
Dietitian (R.D.) – Registered dieticians are bachelor’s degree medical professionals who can help you tailor your dietary and nutritional needs to help promote wound healing, weight gain or loss, and help you make better nutritional choices throughout your treatment and recovery.
Social Worker (LSCW) – The social worker may help you with a wide range of personal issues, including financial concerns and finding local support groups. These licensed professionals are highly trained to help you deal with the emotional and practical aspects of having cancer.
Psychologist (Ph.D. or Psy.D.) – Some cancer-care teams include a psychologist – professionals with doctoral degrees in mental health – to assist you through the emotional turmoil of being diagnosed with and treated for colon cancer.
Case Manager (RN) – Case managers are registered nurses who may work for the hospital, doctor’s office or insurance company. Their main roles are to assist you in creating a care plan and goals; streamline your medical care; and help you locate any resources you require (ostomy supplies, specialists) while helping you avoid any red tape along the way.
Pain Specialist (M.D., D.O.) – Under most circumstances, your oncologist, surgeon and PCP will collaborate to reduce your pain from the treatments and cancer. However, if they cannot control your pain, they will refer you to a pain specialist to enhance your comfort.
When in doubt about any of these professionals, contact your PCP. He or she will be able to provide you with the right person in your time of need.
American Cancer Society. (2006). American Cancer Society’s Complete Guide to Colorectal Cancer. Clifton Fields, NE: American Cancer Society.
American Society of Clinical Oncology. (n.d.). The Oncology Team. Accessed January 29, 2012.