Oncology is the study of cancer. An oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer. Usually, an oncologist manages a person's care and treatment once he or she is diagnosed with cancer.
The field of oncology has three major areas: medical, surgical, and radiation.
A medical oncologist treats cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, such as targeted therapy.
A surgical oncologist removes the tumor and nearby tissue during an operation. He or she also performs certain types of biopsies.
A radiation oncologist treats cancer using radiation therapy.
Other types of oncologists include the following:
A gynecologic oncologist treats gynecologic cancers, such as uterine cancer and cervical cancer.
A pediatric oncologist treats cancer in children. Some types of cancer occur most often in children and teenagers, such as certain brain tumors , leukemia, osteosarcoma, and Ewing's sarcoma. But they sometimes occur in adults. In these cases, an adult may decide to work with a pediatric oncologist.
A hematologist-oncologist diagnoses and treats blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.
An oncologist oversees a patient's care from the cancer diagnosis throughout the course of the disease. The oncologist's role includes the following:
A person with cancer is often treated by a team of oncologists who specialize in different areas of oncology. This approach is helpful because cancer treatment frequently involves a combination of surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy.
Other medical professionals may also be involved in a patient's care:
The team may also include doctors from other areas of medicine. For example, a dermatologist specializes in skin problems and may help treat skin cancer. Learn more about the oncology team.
If a person's cancer diagnosis is complex, the patient's oncologist may ask a tumor board to review the case. A tumor board consists of medical experts from all relevant areas who help decide the best course of treatment.
Cancer is a complex and tricky disease, so you may need to see several different cancer specialists during your treatment. Treatment often involves the combined care of several cancer specialists at once.
Basically, there are three ways to treat cancer: with medicine (as well as with hormone therapy and immunotherapy), with radiation, and with surgery. Each treatment may be handled by a different specialist. Not every person will need all three types of treatments. It depends on your type of cancer and the stage of your cancer. However, here’s a rundown of the cancer specialists you might see:
Medical oncologist. This is the cancer specialist you'll probably see most often. Usually your oncologist will oversee your general care and coordinate treatments with other specialists. Your oncologist will also be in charge of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and immunotherapy. You'll likely visit your medical oncologist for long-term, regular checkups.
Radiation oncologist. This cancer specialist treats cancer with radiation therapy.
Surgical oncologist. This is a surgeon who has special training in treating cancer. Your surgical oncologist may be called in to diagnose cancer with a biopsy. Surgical oncologists also treat cancer by removing tumors or other cancerous tissue.
Depending on your case, you may also need to see other types of doctors for special cancer care. For instance, you may need to see a hematologist, who specializes in treating disorders of the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Sometimes, surgery might be done by a general surgeon instead of a surgical oncologist. Or you might need to see a plastic surgeon if you need reconstructive surgery after treatment. You might also wish to see a psychiatrist or a psycho-oncologist, a psychiatrist who specializes in the psychological challenges of coping with cancer.
Experience. A cancer specialist should have a lot of experience treating the specific type of cancer that you have. Ask how many cases your doctor has treated over his or her career and over the past year. How many is enough? There's no easy answer. But you should have the feeling that your doctor is treating people like you on a regular basis.
Good training. Those framed degrees on a cancer specialist's wall aren't just for decoration, says Terri Ades, DNP, FNP-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. Look at them closely. Where did your doctor train? Ask if he or she has other special qualifications or areas of interest. Ask if he or she has published any relevant journal articles on cancer treatment.
Board certification. Board-certified doctors are trained in a specific area of medicine and must pass an exam testing their knowledge and skill. So if your doctor is board-certified -- in medical oncology or surgery, for instance -- you can be confident that he or she is highly qualified in that field. That said, board certification is not available for every subtype of cancer treatment. So not being board certified is not necessarily a bad sign.
Openness to your questions. This is one of the most important things to look for in a cancer specialist. You need to feel like your doctor is listening to you and answering your questions. Also, make sure your doctor will be available to you when you need to talk to him or her -- even after you leave the office.
Usually, your primary care doctor will refer you to a cancer specialist. Many people rely on recommendations from friends and relatives. Your insurance company may also have a specific list of providers that they will work with.
There are other ways to get the names of cancer specialists. You could call your local hospital and ask for the names of cancer specialists who are on staff. You could get the names of cancer specialists through different medical organizations, like the American Medical Association, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Surgeons, or your local medical society. And you could contact top medical schools or cancer treatment centers in your state for references.