Oncology is the study of cancer. An oncologist is a doctor who treats cancer and provides medical care for a person diagnosed with cancer. An oncologist may also be called a cancer specialist.
The field of oncology has 3 major areas based on treatments: medical oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical oncology.
Radiation oncologists treat cancer using radiation therapy, which is the use of high-energy x-rays or other particles to destroy cancer cells.
Surgical oncologists treat cancer using surgery, including removing the tumor and nearby tissue during a operation. This type of surgeon can also perform certain types of biopsies to help diagnose cancer.
There are also medical terms for oncologists who specialize in caring for specific groups of patients or groups of cancers. Here are definitions for some common terms.
Geriatric oncologists work with people with cancer who are age 65 and older. Older adults can have additional challenges. Geriatric oncologists specialize in providing the best care for older adults.
Gynecologic oncologists treat cancers in such reproductive organs as the cervix, fallopian tubes, ovaries, uterus, vagina, and vulva.
Hematologist-oncologists treat blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma.
Neuro-oncologists treat cancers of the brain, spine, and nervous system.
Pediatric oncologists treat cancer in children and teens. Some types of cancer occur most often in these younger age groups. When these types of cancer occasionally occur in adults, those adult patients may choose to work with a pediatric oncologist.
Thoracic oncologists treat cancers inside the chest area, including the lungs and esophagus.
Urologic oncologists treat cancers in the genitourinary system, such as the bladder, kidneys, penis, prostate gland, and testicles.
What is the role of the oncologist?
An oncologist manages a patient's care throughout the course of the disease. This starts with the diagnosis. Their role includes:
Recommending tests to determine whether a person has cancer
Explaining a cancer diagnosis, including the type and stage of the cancer
Talking about all treatment options and your treatment choice
Delivering quality and compassionate care
Helping you manage symptoms and side effects of cancer and its treatment
A person's cancer treatment plan may include more than one type of treatment, such as surgery, cancer medications, and/or radiation therapy. That means different types of oncologists and other health care providers work together to create a patient's overall treatment plan. This is called a multidisciplinary team.
Cancer care teams often include a variety of other health care professionals, including pathologists, radiologists, physician assistants, nurse practitioners, oncology nurses, social workers, pharmacists, and more. Learn about these and other possible members of a multidisciplinary team in another article on this website. Doctors from other areas of medicine can also be part of this team. For example, a dermatologist, which is a specialist in skin problems, may help treat skin cancer.
What is a tumor board?
Sometimes, a person's cancer diagnosis is complex. In this case, the patient's oncologist may ask a tumor board to review the case. In some cancer centers, a tumor board reviews all cancer cases.
A tumor board is a group of medical experts from all areas of cancer care who work together to decide the best treatment plan. The tumor board can include medical oncologists, radiation oncologists, and surgical oncologists. Other specialists may be a part of the board as well. The members of the tumor board can provide diverse perspectives that can help you get the best care possible.
Learn more about tumor boards and when they are used in cancer treatment.
Questions to ask about your health care team
How many oncologists will be part of my cancer treatment team?
If there is more than 1 doctor on my team, which doctor will lead my overall care?
How will each type of recommended cancer treatment help me?
Will my case be reviewed by a tumor board? When?
When do I need to make a decision about my treatment planning?
How often will I need to see each doctor during the treatment period? After treatment?
Are my doctors all at the same hospital/center or at different locations?
What is my health insurance coverage for different medical services? If I'm concerned with the costs of cancer care, who can help me?
What other types of health care providers will be part of my cancer care team?
If I experience a new side effect or a change in how I'm feeling, who should I tell?
Is there one person I should contact with any questions I have? How can I get in touch with the different professionals on my team?
What is the best way to get in touch with my cancer care team in an emergency?
Who can help me cope with the stress and emotions of cancer?