Your GP may send you to see a doctor who specialises in diagnosing and treating people with head and neck cancer. You may have some choice about who you see.
You may need to see more than one specialist.
You can find specialists who are active members of a head and neck MDT on the Canrefer website.
What you need to know
Types of head and neck cancer specialists
Each type of cancer has a primary (main) treatment. This affects the type of specialist you see.
Most people with suspected head and neck cancer will be referred to an ear, nose and throat surgeon or head and neck surgeon first.
This surgeon usually presents your case to a multidisciplinary team (MDT) meeting where a recommended treatment plan will be discussed. In some cases you will be asked to attend the MDT meeting in person. It is best to bring someone with you. It is important to bring any scans and x-rays with you to this meeting.
Specialists you may see for head and neck cancer include:
- ENT specialist
- head and neck surgeon
- oral and maxillofacial surgeon
- reconstructive surgeon
- radiation oncologist
- medical oncologist.
Getting a referral
A referral is a letter from one health professional to another, asking them to see you. It includes information about your symptoms and test results.
In most cases, your GP refers you to a specialist, but the specialist can also refer you to other specialists. Referrals from a GP are valid for 12 months and referrals from a specialist are valid for 3 months.
When you are getting a referral, you can ask to see a specialist who is a member of a multidisciplinary team. You should also ask your GP whether the specialist works in the public or private health system. This can affect the amount you pay.
Multidisciplinary teams (MDTs)
A multidisciplinary team (MDT) is a group of doctors, nurses and allied health professionals who treat cancer patients. Team members meet regularly to discuss their patients and plan their treatment.
Hospitals and cancer centres generally have a number of MDTs, which oversee the care of people with different types of cancer.
Cancer care can be complicated, and having your care overseen by an MDT improves the management and coordination of your care.
You, or your GP, can use the Canrefer website to look up specialists who treat your type of cancer. All specialists listed on the website are active MDT members.
What to ask or talk about
Choosing a specialist
Even though you have to see a certain type of specialist, there may be more than one you can choose from.
Things that can affect how much choice you have are whether you:
- live in a city or in a rural or remote area
- have a common type of cancer or a rare cancer
- want to be seen in the public or the private health system.
Talk to your GP about what specialists they recommend.
- Don’t be afraid to ask what choices you have.
- Ask your GP whether the specialist they recommend is part of a multidisciplinary team.
Working with your doctors
Seeing doctors because you might have cancer can be very stressful. You may find it difficult talking about your concerns or understanding everything the doctor is saying.
These days, doctors and other health professionals like to work with their patients to decide what choices are best for them. This is called shared decision making. To be involved in your care, it is important that you understand the choices you have.
Asking about costs
Before you have any doctors' visits, tests or treatments, it is important to ask about the costs.
Ask what the fees will be and how much you will get back from Medicare or your private health fund. You will have to pay any remaining costs (the gap payment).
When you talk to your doctor about treatment options, ask what each option will cost and the total amount you will need to pay.
Most treatments are available in both the public and private systems but the costs can be very different. Ask what your treatment will cost in each system.
Preparing for your specialist visit
It is a good idea to take someone with you for support, and to help you remember what the specialist says. You can also plan in advance what you want to ask or talk about.
The specialist will ask you about your symptoms and examine you. They may also send you for more tests or to see other specialists.
You may have one or more visits to your specialist before they have all the information they need. Once your specialist has this information, they will explain your cancer to you, and what treatment they think you should have.