Cancer Care and Your Rights
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Cancer Care and Your Rights
Your health care team
Doctors, nurses and other health professionals offer a range of services to assist you, your family and carers. When you notice signs or symptoms that might be cancer, or have a positive screening test, you will usually see a GP. Your GP will order initial tests and scans. If the results suggest that you might have cancer, you will be referred to a specialist doctor for further tests, diagnosis and staging.
Your specialist can answer questions about treatment and address any concerns you may have. However, there is often limited time during a specialist consultation. Other members of your treatment team (e.g. GP, cancer care coordinator or social worker) may be able to answer some of your questions more quickly than your specialist (for urgent matters, call 000). Your GP will also play an important role in supporting you throughout treatment, recovery and your ongoing health care. This is why it’s important to develop a good relationship with a particular GP.
The details below describe the roles of the most common members of the treatment team. Not all of these health professionals will be in the hospital or treatment centre, and they may have different titles depending on where you have treatment.
Health professionals who can help
GP or family doctor
- assists you with treatment decisions
- refers you to specialists as well as allied health professionals
- can help arrange second opinions
- works with your specialists in providing follow-up care after treatment finishes
- continues to see you for day-to-day health care issues
- gets to know you and your medical history
- may support you during telehealth appointments with specialists if you live in a rural area
- may be a medical oncologist, surgeon, radiation oncologist or haematologist
- depending on the type of cancer you have, you may need to see several specialists who will look after different aspects of your care
- diagnoses the cancer and supervises your treatment, follow-up and overall care
- can answer any questions you have about your treatment
- usually works as part of a multidisciplinary team
- if you are treated in hospital, junior medical staff, such as registrars and resident medical officers, may be able to help you with questions and concerns
Cancer care coordinator
- a senior specialist nurse who may be called a clinical nurse consultant or clinical nurse specialist
- coordinates your care throughout diagnosis and treatment, and works closely with specialists and other members of the health care team
- provides information and support
- in a larger hospital may coordinate care for specific cancer types, while in a smaller hospital there may be a general coordinator or none at all
- in rural areas, cancer care coordinators may attend with the visiting oncologist
- in hospitals that don’t have a clinical nurse consultant or cancer care coordinator, the nursing unit manager may have a similar role
- in some cases, more than one nurse may be involved (e.g. a surgical nurse)
- provide counselling, emotional support and advocacy at all stages of living with cancer
- provide information and access to practical support services including accommodation, transport, financial support, child care and home care services
- assess what sort of support you need, and identify ways you can receive this support
- link you with the people and services best able to meet your needs
Physical and occupational therapists
- physiotherapists help you to move and exercise safely to regain strength, fitness and mobility
- exercise physiologists prescribe exercise to help people with medical conditions improve their overall health, fitness, strength and energy levels
- occupational therapists offer equipment/aids and advice about getting back to your daily activities
- speech pathologists help with speech or swallowing issues after treatment
Other health professionals
- psychologists or counsellors help you understand and manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment
- dietitians help with nutrition concerns and recommend changes to diet during treatment and recovery
- radiographers perform x-rays, mammograms and other scans
- radiation therapists plan and deliver radiation therapy
- genetic counsellors provide advice for people with strong family histories of certain types of cancer
- pharmacists dispense medicines and give advice about dose and side effects
Deciding on specialist care
It is important that you feel comfortable and confident with your choice of specialist because you will have a lot of contact with them and they will influence your care.
Some people are happy to leave the choice of specialist to their GP. However, you have a right to be involved in this decision if you would like to be. You may prefer to choose a specialist based on your own research, or recommendations from family, friends or colleagues.
Choosing a specialist
You need a valid referral to claim Medicare benefits for a private specialist visit. This referral can come from a GP or another specialist.
You have the right to be treated as a public patient in any public hospital. If you are treated in the public system, you will be treated by the specialist appointed by the hospital, and you may see different specialists during the course of your treatment.
You might want to research public treatment centres that specialise in the type of cancer you have. Keep in mind that if you choose to be treated in a public hospital outside your local area, you may have to wait longer for treatment. Talk to your doctor about the best option for you.
If you have private health insurance, you can choose to be treated as a private patient, or you can avoid out-of-pocket costs by being treated as a public patient in a public hospital.
Key issues to consider
There are a few issues to think about when deciding which specialist should be responsible for your treatment. Before visiting your cancer specialist for the first time, take some time to prepare for the appointment.
Number of patients – Some specialists have expertise in treating certain types of cancer because they see a large number of patients with that cancer. For some cancer types, there is evidence that specialists who treat a lot of patients with similar cancers have the best treatment outcomes.
Multidisciplinary care – There is evidence that patients do better if their doctor works as part of a multidisciplinary team (MDT). This means health professionals who specialise in different aspects of your care work together to plan treatment.
The MDT often includes surgeons, medical oncologists, radiologists, radiation oncologists, pathologists, cancer care coordinators and nurses, as well as allied health professionals, such as a physiotherapist, genetic counsellor, dietitian and social worker. The team meets regularly to review cases, consider treatment options and discuss ways to help people cope with the physical and emotional effects of cancer.
Specialist treatment centres – These centres have multidisciplinary teams of health professionals experienced in treating particular cancers. Specialist treatment centres have many patients and also tend to treat rare cancers or cancers that don’t have a typical response to treatment. They are often teaching centres, which means you might be treated by a junior doctor who is supervised by a specialist.
You may want to ask your GP or other doctors about centres that specialise in treating the type of cancer that you have. It’s your right to be referred to a specialist in one of these centres, even if it’s not in your local area.
Your preferences – You may prefer to see all your doctors at the one hospital, even if it is a long way from home, or to attend your local hospital for some appointments to reduce travel time. It may also be possible to use telehealth for some consultations. It’s your right to determine what is most important to you, and your doctors should respect your preferences.
Finding a specialist
Ask your GP – Your GP will be able to refer you to a suitable specialist or treatment centre. Your GP should have clear reasons for their choice. You are entitled to ask about those reasons and to receive a clear answer – for example, is it because the specialist has particular skills or simply because they are nearby?
You also have the right to ask your GP for a referral to more than one specialist.
Search online – Check the websites of medical colleges for a list of specialists. For example, you can search for colorectal surgeons on the Colorectal Surgical Society of Australia and New Zealand’s website. You can also check a specialist’s registration at the Australian Health Practitioner Regulation Agency.
Contact the treating hospital or centre – The websites of many hospitals allow you to search for a specialist who works at that location. Alternatively, you can call the hospital and ask about specialists who treat the type of cancer you have.
Personal recommendation – If any of your relatives or friends have had a similar cancer, you may ask them about the specialists they saw.
If you live in a rural or remote area
In rural areas, your GP may refer you to a local specialist or treatment centre, or to a visiting oncologist. Depending on the type of cancer, they may recommend that you travel to a centre that specialises in a particular treatment.
There are excellent regional cancer centres in Australia, and some regional specialists treat many cancer patients. However, some regional specialists treat far fewer cancer cases than doctors in metropolitan areas, and there may be a long wait to see the visiting oncologist.
If you are concerned about the waiting time in your local area, you can ask to be referred to a specialist or treatment centre in another area.
If you have to travel for treatment, you may be eligible for state and territory government programs that help cover your travel costs. For details, call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or talk to the hospital social worker.
It may also be possible to have some specialist consultations using telehealth.
This information is reviewed by
This information was last reviewed May 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Sarah Lewis, Faculty of Medicine and Health, The University of Sydney, NSW; Kevin Bloom, Senior Social Worker, Haematology and Bone Marrow Transplant, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Danielle Curnoe, Consumer; Alana Fitzgibbon, Clinical Nurse Consultant – Gastro-Intestinal Cancers, Cancer Services, Royal Hobart Hospital, TAS; Hall & Wilcox (law firm); Johanna Jordaan, Consumer; Dr Deme Karikios, Medical Oncologist, Nepean Cancer and Wellness Centre, Nepean Hospital, NSW; Melissa Lawrie, Breast Cancer Clinical Nurse, Cancer Services, Gold Coast Hospital and Health Service, QLD; Jacqueline Lesage, Consumer Reviewer, Cancer Voices NSW; McCabe Centre for Law and Cancer, VIC; Louise Pellerade, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Andrew Potter, Consumer; Siân Slade, PhD Candidate, Nossal Institute for Global Health and Non-Executive Director (health, disability sectors), VIC; Paula Watt, Clinical Psychologist, WOMEN Centre, WA.