What is Oncology and What Does an Oncologist Do?

With over 50 different national organizations dedicated to serving patients with various types of cancer, it’s apparent that cancer affects nearly every facet of our society. The field of oncology is comprised of medical experts dedicated to learning more about this disease and how best to treat it to increase survivability rates and improve patient quality of life during and after treatment.

Many doctors who are currently in this field share inspiring stories of family members who were personally affected by cancer. If you’ve ever wondered “What does an oncologist do?” or considered entering this valuable field, read on to learn more about what is oncology and where this career path might take you.

What is Oncology?

Oncology is the field of medicine that focuses on diagnosing and treating cancer. There are many different types of cancer, as well as several different ways to treat cancer. These different areas of oncology are given unique names to identify the different branches of the field.

• What is radiation oncology? Radiation oncology is the field of medicine that uses radiation therapy to treat cancer. It is the only oncology specialty officially recognized by the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education (ACGME). All other oncology focus areas are listed as subspecialties within a broader specialty area.
• What is medical oncology? Medical oncology is the field of medicine that uses chemotherapy and other methods that target the body’s immune system in order to fight cancer.
• What is surgical oncology? Surgical oncology is the field of medicine that uses surgery to find and remove cancer from the body in hopes of stopping the spread of the disease.
• What is gynecologic oncology? Gynecologic oncology is the field of medicine that targets female reproductive cancers, such as ovarian cancer or cervical cancer.
• What is hematology oncology? Hematology oncology is the field of medicine that targets blood cancers, such as leukemia or lymphoma.
• What is pediatric oncology? Pediatric oncology is the field of medicine that targets cancers in children, particularly cancers that are more prone to appearing in children than in adults, such as Ewing’s sarcoma.
• What is dermatologic oncology? Dermatologic oncology is the field of medicine that targets skin cancer and cancers of the mucous membranes.
• What is musculoskeletal oncology? Musculoskeletal oncology is the field of medicine that targets bone cancers and other cancers and non-cancerous tumors within the musculoskeletal system.

What does an oncologist do?

Once a patient is referred to an oncologist for suspicion of cancer, the treatment plan becomes increasingly complex. An oncologist is the ringleader of a medical team that is experienced in confirming a cancer diagnosis and then developing a treatment plan that considers the patient’s health and quality of life.

Oncologists may need to order many different tests, from blood tests to diagnostic imaging. Depending on the type of suspected cancer, the oncologist may need to use specialized tests, such as those used to identify brain cancer or gynecologic cancers. Once a cancer diagnosis is confirmed, the oncologist will need to evaluate the tests to determine the best course of treatment that aggressively fights the cancer while still maintaining a reasonable quality of life for the patient. If the cancer is isolated, surgery may have a high success rate of permanent remission, while cancers in the more advanced stages may require chemotherapy or radiation treatments.

Throughout this process, the oncologist will need to share updates, options, recommendations, and risks with the patient and his or her family. To handle these delicate conversations, an exceptional bedside manner is necessary to share the information while also providing comfort and understanding through a worrisome situation.

As the treatment progresses, oncologists must also track a patient’s progress meticulously so that treatment plans can be adjusted immediately if the cancer doesn’t respond well to the treatment or if a previously cured cancer reemerges.

How do you become an oncologist?

Since oncologists are often dealing with a disease that involves complex treatment plans and highly variable survival rates, they must undergo extensive training. While some training is generally applicable to all types of cancer, many oncologists will choose a specific type of cancer as a specialty and complete extensive training and research in diagnosis and treatment in that area. Highly specialized oncologists will be best equipped to treat patients even in the later stages of the disease.

Education and Training

To become an oncologist, a student must complete 4 years of undergraduate work and 4 years of medical school. Oncology residencies and internships after medical school can last anywhere from 3 to 8 years, depending on the chosen specialty or pathway. Even after becoming a licensed oncologists, most physicians will continue to complete extensive research and training throughout their careers to stay current on the latest advancements in cancer therapies and treatments.

Specializations

Radiation Oncology, the only officially recognized oncology specialty, has one subspecialty in Hospice and Palliative Medicine, which focuses on end of life care and symptom relief for serious illnesses. In addition to that subspecialty within the field of oncology, there are several other oncological subspecialties available through other medical specialties. The ACGME officially recognizes all of the following subspecialties:

• Dermatology: Micrographic Surgery & Dermatologic Oncology
• Internal Medicine: Hermatology & Medical Oncology
• Obstetrics & Gynecology: Gynecologic Oncology
• Orthopaedic Surgery: Musculoskeletal Oncology
• Pediatrics: Pediatric Hematology Oncology
• Surgery: Complex General Surgical Oncology

Salary Expectations

According to Medscape’s 2020 Oncologist Compensation Report, oncologists can expect to make on average $377,000 per year. Oncologists earn over $100,000 per year more than physicians who specialize in Internal Medicine (with an average annual salary of $251,000) or Family Medicine (with an average salary of $234,000), although male oncologists earn nearly $60,000 more per year than their female counterparts.

Job opportunities for oncologists, like most specialized physicians, are expected to grow faster than the average career field, and oncology is expected to see nearly 14% industry growth through 2026. Due to an aging population and increased prevalence of cancers, oncologists will likely be in high demand for the foreseeable future.

Frequently Asked Questions

What types of cancer research will an oncologist do?

Even after completing residency and obtaining licensure, oncologists will likely continue cancer research throughout their careers. This can include research on how specific cancers respond to treatments or new methods for detecting cancers earlier. Some oncologists may also choose to structure their career in a research capacity instead of a clinical capacity, meaning they will focus primarily on lab research aimed at improving our understanding of cancers and cancer treatments for other oncologists working directly with patients.

How does nuclear medicine relate to the field of oncology?

Nuclear medicine involves using small amounts of radiological materials to identify disease and evaluate organ function. For oncologists, the techniques in nuclear medicine can be used to diagnose certain types of cancer and evaluate how rapidly the disease has progressed once it has been identified.

What is palliative care and how does an oncologist provide it?

Palliative care focuses on improving the quality of life for patients living with serious or chronic illnesses. Oncologists can help with the palliative care of their patients by considering the side effects of certain treatments, such as radiation therapy. While such treatments may be necessary to help patients survive cancer, oncologists can treat the disease and provide palliative care by prescribing medications that lessen the side effects or by using smaller doses of therapies known to cause extreme reactions.

How has the oncology profession been impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic?

Like many other medical fields, oncology has experienced significant chances since the COVID-19 pandemic has spread. More oncologists are seeing patients virtually, and medical teams are collaborating in virtual rooms while maintaining safe social distancing procedures. Oncologists, like other physicians, must pay more attention to Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) and maintaining sterilized environments when meeting patients in person. Since cancer patients already have compromised immune systems, the COVID-19 virus is especially troublesome. While oncologists may need to take extra precautions or change how they meet with patients, their services are no less needed in today’s environment than pre-COVID-19. To adapt with today’s new medical environment, oncologists should be prepared to work with other specialists when treating cancer patients who have or are exposed to COVID-19.

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What is Oncology and What Does an Oncologist Do?