7 Doctors Who Help Treat Lung Cancer: Which Specialist Does What? | MyLungCancerTeam

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7 Doctors Who Help Treat Lung Cancer: Which Specialist Does What?

Medically reviewed by Leonora Valdez, M.D.
Posted on April 16, 2024

Lung cancer is a complex disease and can look different in each person. While the first step to diagnosis usually begins with the primary care doctor, various specialists can help along the journey, depending on your needs. Each specialist brings their expertise and training to give you the best care possible. However, making sense of all the different departments and roles can become confusing.

“I’m currently waiting for radiation to be set up finally, and then chemo will start,” shared a MyLungCancerTeam member. “This is all so confusing. I have a chemo oncologist and radiation oncologist. Who is ‘running the show’? Who follows me over time when this treatment is done?” they asked.

Many cancer centers have a dedicated nurse who helps keep track of appointments, treatment plans, and the providers a person is seeing. Familiarizing yourself with specialists’ different roles can help make it easier to know who does what. Here are some of the typical providers you’re likely to have on your cancer care team.

1. Medical Oncologist

Oncologists are cancer doctors. They can diagnose tumors and order cancer treatments. The oncologist and oncology nurses coordinate your overall treatment plan. Medical oncologists are trained in the latest chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and other systemic treatments. If you’re interested in a clinical trial, your oncologist can help connect you with lung cancer research that you may take part in.

Oncologists work closely with you and your loved ones to develop personalized lung cancer care plans based on cancer stage, cell characteristics, and overall health status. They monitor the side effects of treatment and adjust therapy as needed. They are usually in charge of your follow-up after treatment.

2. Pulmonologist or Pneumologist

Pulmonologists specialize in diagnosing and treating diseases that affect the lungs and respiratory system. They play a vital role in the initial evaluation and staging of lung cancer. A pulmonologist is trained to do diagnostic procedures such as bronchoscopy, thoracentesis, and biopsy (taking tissue samples for analysis). They also evaluate your lung function in case lung surgery is an option.

Pulmonologists also help manage lung cancer symptoms like shortness of breath, cough, and chest pain. They provide ongoing respiratory care and support to optimize lung function and overall quality of life.

Pulmonologists also collaborate with respiratory therapists. These licensed medical professionals are trained to help measure lung function and monitor people with lung conditions. They are a valuable supplement to your pulmonologist and can help answer questions about devices, testing, and home care.

3. Thoracic Surgeon

Thoracic surgeons specialize in procedures for diseases affecting the chest. Depending on the stage and location of the tumor and type of lung cancer, lung cancer surgery may be recommended as part of the treatment plan. Examples of the types of procedures a thoracic surgeon may perform include:

  • Lobectomy — Removal of a lobe (section) of the lung
  • Pneumonectomy — Removal of an entire lung
  • Segmentectomy — Removal of a portion of a lobe
  • Wedge resection — Removal of a small, localized (in one area) tumor

If surgery is recommended, your thoracic surgeon can tell you what to expect from the procedure, including aftercare instructions.

4. Pathologist

Pathologists are physicians who test samples in the lab to diagnose diseases, including lung cancer. They may analyze tissue samples from a biopsy, blood samples, or other tissues. The results from lab testing can help guide the best treatment options for lung cancer and any complications.

5. Radiologists

Radiologists are trained medical doctors who work with technicians and nurses to do imaging tests using radiation therapy. Using X-rays, positron emission tomography (PET) scans, MRIs, and CT scans, they can take images inside your body to get a closer look at masses on the lungs or other areas.

6. Radiation Oncologist

Radiation oncologists specialize in the use of high-energy radiation to target and destroy cancer cells. Radiation therapy may be used as a primary treatment or combined with surgery and chemotherapy. Radiation oncologists use different techniques to deliver precise doses of radiation to the tumor site while minimizing damage to surrounding healthy tissue.

7. Palliative Care Doctor

Palliative care is a specialty service that helps people with cancer feel their best. While it’s often confused with hospice (or end-of-life care), palliative care is appropriate for people at any stage of lung cancer.

“I caught a chest cold,” shared a MyLungCancerTeam member. “Last Saturday, it was very difficult for me to get my breath. I was in more pain from struggling to breathe. My palliative care doctor sent a mobile dispatch doctor to my home on Monday.”

Doctors may be involved in aspects of palliative care, like pain management. “The pain gets worse when three doctors tell you that you shouldn’t have pain,” exclaimed another member. “The pain is real. Thank God for my palliative care doctor. At least she believes me and treats accordingly!”

Nurses and other supportive professionals (like acupuncturists, massage therapists, and spiritual leaders) are often part of the palliative care network. It’s never too early to reach out and learn about what palliative care resources may be available.

Additional Specialists

For many people facing lung cancer, treatment needs to be specially tailored to fit their unique situation. You may need the expertise of a cardiologist to manage co-existing heart conditions. Others may see a dermatologist to help manage the side effects of lung cancer treatment that affect their skin. A psychiatrist can also be an essential part of the team for people who struggle with depression or anxiety related to their diagnosis.

MyLungCancerTeam members have talked about the importance of advocating for yourself to get the care and referrals needed. “From my experience, you have to be proactive,” advised one member. “Learn as much as you can and expect your oncologist to be responsive to your needs, whether it is pain, anxiety, or depression. If your oncologist won't treat you holistically, then ask them to make appointments for you with the appropriate physician. If you try to make appointments with other doctors yourself, it takes forever to get in.”

Aside from doctors, trained health care professionals can be crucial in managing lung cancer. These providers help with the physical and social aspects of cancer care.

For example, some MyLungCancerTeam members have mentioned seeing speech pathologists for swallowing issues. Registered dietitian nutritionists can help with appetite changes and digestive problems that lead to weight loss.

Social workers can offer you and your family advice on navigating health insurance matters, connecting with support groups, and finding community programs. Voicing your concerns and tapping into the available and various care specialists will help you feel less alone when charting new territory with lung cancer.

Talk With Others Who Understand

MyLungCancerTeam is the social network for people with lung cancer and their loved ones. On MyLungCancerTeam, more than 12,000 members come together to ask questions, give advice, and share their stories with others who understand life with lung cancer.

Who are the specialists on your lung cancer care team? Who is the “point person” for your care? Share your suggestions in the comments below, or start a conversation by posting on your Activities page.

Posted on April 16, 2024
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Leonora Valdez, M.D. received her medical degree from the Autonomous University of Guadalajara before pursuing a fellowship in internal medicine and subsequently in medical oncology at the National Cancer Institute. Learn more about her here.
Anastasia Climan, RDN, CDN is a dietitian with over 10 years of experience in public health and medical writing. Learn more about her here.

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