What is an oncologist?


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An oncologist is a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. They act as the primary healthcare provider for people with cancer to coordinate and manage their treatment.

The American Cancer Society predict around 1.8 million new cancer diagnoses in 2020. 

Cancer remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but survival rates continue to improve due to advances in cancer detection, treatment, and management. 

People with cancer will typically work with a team of healthcare providers, including nurses, dietitians, pathologists, and oncologists. 

Read on to learn more about oncologists, including the different types of oncology, some methods that specialists use to treat cancer, and more. 

Types

Oncologist working with a patient
Oncologists specialize in diagnosing and treating cancer.

Oncologists specialize in one of three major areas of oncology: medical, surgical, or radiation. The following sections look at these areas in more detail.

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Medical oncology

Medical oncologists specialize in treating and managing cancer using nonsurgical methods, such as:

  • chemotherapy
  • biologic therapy 
  • hormone therapy 
  • targeted therapy 

People receiving cancer treatments will see a medical oncologist most often. Medical oncologists usually act as the primary healthcare provider for people with cancer, according to the National Cancer Institute

They coordinate cancer treatment plans and closely monitor people for side effects. Medical oncologists also follow up with people after they complete their treatment. 

Surgical oncology

Surgical oncologists are surgeons who specialize in diagnosing, treating, and managing cancer. 

Many people with suspected cancer will see a surgical oncologist first. After a primary care physician finds evidence of cancer, they will refer the person to an oncologist for further evaluation. 

Surgical oncologists can confirm cancer diagnoses and determine the stage of the cancer

To do this, surgical oncologists perform biopsies, which involves removing a small sample of abnormal tissue and examining it to look for cancer cells. 

Surgical oncologists can recommend different treatment options based on the information they gather from biopsies, imaging tests, and other laboratory work. If a biopsy reveals cancer cells in the tissue sample, a surgical oncologist can remove the tumor and surrounding tissues. 

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Radiation oncology

A radiation oncologist specializes in delivering external and internal radiation therapy to people with cancer. 

External radiation therapy uses high energy photon beams to kill cancer cells and shrink tumors. Internal radiation therapy is a systemic treatment that involves swallowing, injecting, or implanting a radioactive material, such as radioactive iodine. 

A person may receive radiation therapy on its own or in combination with another type of cancer treatment. For instance, they may receive radiation therapy to shrink a tumor before undergoing surgery to remove it. 

Other oncology specialties

Oncologists can specialize in treating cancers that affect specific populations or parts of the body. Some examples of oncology specialties include:

  • gastrointestinal oncology 
  • geriatric oncology
  • gynecologic oncology
  • hematology-oncology
  • musculoskeletal oncology
  • neuro-oncology
  • pediatric oncology

What do oncologists do?

A person will usually see an oncologist if their primary care physician suspects that they have cancer. 

A primary care physician may use MRI and CT scans as well as blood tests to confirm their diagnosis. If these tests reveal signs of cancer, they will recommend that the person visits an oncologist.

During the first appointment, the oncologist may perform a physical exam and order additional blood work, imaging tests, or biopsies. They use these tests to determine the type and stage of the cancer, which helps them identify a person’s best treatment options.

An oncologist may introduce the person to other specialists as part of the treatment team. They may also provide a general timeframe of treatment.

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The exact type of treatment a person receives depends on the type and stage of the cancer. For instance, a person who has one or more tumors may see a surgical oncologist for a biopsy. 

Oncologists treat early stage cancer and noninvasive tumors with surgery or radiation therapy. Advanced cancers that have already spread to different areas of the body may require chemotherapy and other systemic treatments.

Oncologists not only diagnose cancer, they can also administer treatments and closely monitor disease progression. For example, surgical oncologists can perform biopsies and remove cancerous tissue, while radiation oncologists can administer different forms of radiation therapy to destroy cancer cells and shrink tumors. 

A person can expect to work with a medical oncologist throughout the course of their cancer treatment. 

After a person finishes treatment, they will attend regular follow-up appointments with their medical oncologist. During these appointments, the medical oncologist may run tests to check for signs of any physical or emotional problems related to the person’s cancer treatment. 

Conditions they treat

Oncologists can treat all types of cancer. Some oncologists specialize in delivering specific therapies, such as radiation therapy, chemotherapy, or surgery. Other oncologists focus on treating organ-specific cancers, such as:

  • bone cancers
  • blood cancers
  • brain cancer
  • breast cancer
  • cervical cancer
  • head and neck cancer
  • liver cancer
  • lung cancer
  • prostate cancer
  • skin cancer
  • testicular cancer
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Education required

Doctors must meet specific education and experience requirements to become a licensed oncologist. The education requirements for oncologists include a 4 year bachelor’s degree and 4 years of training at an accredited medical school.

Most people do not begin training in oncology until they finish medical school. Oncology is a subspecialty of internal medicine.

After graduating from medical school, future oncologists must complete a residency program — typically in internal medicine or general surgery ­ —followed by a fellowship in their chosen oncology subfield. 

Summary

An oncologist is a medical doctor who specializes in diagnosing, treating, and managing cancer. 

Oncologists possess the highly specialized knowledge necessary for diagnosing and treating cancer. Many oncologists hone their practice further by specializing in certain types of cancer or cancer treatments.

A primary care physician may refer someone to an oncologist for further testing or treatment. A person can expect to work with a group of healthcare professionals while they receive treatment.

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