What is an oncologist?

What is an oncologist?

An oncologist is a doctor who is trained to diagnose and treat cancer or suspected cancer. Learn more about the types of oncologists and what they do.

Cancer is a very common disease. Nearly all of us will have had the experience of a close friend or family member who has been diagnosed with cancer. It remains one of the leading causes of death in the United States, but survival rates continue to improve thanks to advances in detection, treatment, and management. In 2021, there will be an estimated 1.9 million new cancer cases diagnosed and 608,570 cancer deaths in the United States.

An oncologist is a physician who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancer. They must be excellent communicators to effectively convey information to their patients and other healthcare support staff. Oncologists accurately monitor and record various pieces of information related to patient care, and often work with very precise and sometimes sharp tools — mistakes can have serious consequences. They have great problem-solving skills and can evaluate a patient’s symptoms and administer the appropriate treatments, often quickly when the patient’s life is threatened.

What is the training pathway to become an oncologist and are their different types? What conditions fall under the remit of an oncologist and what does their average salary look like? These are all questions to consider before choosing to steer your medical career towards oncology.

What does an oncologist do? 

Oncologists are the primary healthcare providers for people with cancer and are in charge of coordinating and managing a patient’s care and treatments throughout the course of their disease. Some of their responsibilities include:

  • Explaining the cancer diagnosis and stage
  • Talking about all treatment options and their recommendation
  • Delivering quality and compassionate care
  • Helping a patient manage the symptoms and side effects of cancer and cancer treatment
  • Possessing a deep understanding of the symptoms and signs related to different types of cancers, and how each one affects the human body
  • Determining which tests are appropriate for making an accurate cancer diagnosis and reading the associated test results, including tests such as CAT or MRI scans, biopsies, and ultrasounds.
  • Prescribing an appropriate type of cancer treatment which may include medication, chemotherapy, radiation, surgical removal, or hospice care
  • Providing ongoing care and consultation for patients during and after their treatment
  • Staying up to date about new research and findings associated with the field of oncology
  • Showing compassion and care to their patients and their patient’s families

How to become an oncologist?

Once you have completed an undergraduate degree, aced your MCATs, and finished medical school, it is then time to maneuver your medical education along the path to oncology. You will need to complete a residency, train as an internist, and then complete a residency in internal medicine. If you want to be a surgical oncologist, you will need extra training to first become a general surgeon. For most oncologists, residencies typically last 3 to 4 years. Once your residency is complete, you will then pursue a fellowship in a subspeciality of your choice. Regardless of what you choose, all physicians also undergo at least two years of additional training with a fellowship in oncology. Every physician who treats patients in the US must obtain a license by fulfilling specific requirements — these can vary on a state-by-state basis. Physicians must pass an examination to become board certified as a specialized oncologist, and depending on the sub-specialty, the testing and certification is conducted by one of the following: the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology (ABOG); American Board of Internal Medicine (ABIM); American Board of Pediatrics (ABP); American Board of Radiology (ABR); or the American Board of Surgery (ABS).

Types of oncologists 

The field of oncology can be split into three main areas: medical, surgical or radiation oncology. Every oncologist will specialize in one of these areas.

Medical oncology

Medical oncologists specialize in treating and managing cancer using nonsurgical methods. These include chemotherapy, biologic therapy, hormone therapy, and targeted therapy. Medical oncologists coordinate cancer treatment plans and closely monitor their patients for side effects. They also provide follow-up care for patients after they complete their treatment.

Surgical oncology

Patients 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 perform biopsies, where small samples of abnormal tissue are removed and examined for cancer cells. This allows surgical oncologists to diagnose cancer types and stages. If a biopsy reveals cancer cells in the tissue sample, a surgical oncologist can remove the tumor and surrounding tissues.

Radiation oncology

Radiation oncologists specialize in delivering both external and internal radiation therapy to patients with cancer. External radiation therapy uses high-energy photon beams to shrink tumors and kill cancer cells. Internal radiation therapy is a treatment that involves internalizing a radioactive material by swallowing, injecting, or implanting. An example of such a material is radioactive iodine.

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

There are also oncologists who specialize in the following areas:

  • A gynecologic oncologist treats gynecologic cancers, such as uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancers.
  • A pediatric oncologist treats cancer in children. There are types of cancer more common in children but which still also occur in adults. In these situations, an adult may decide to work with a pediatric oncologist.
  • A hematologist-oncologist diagnoses and treats blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and myeloma. Most oncology fellowships include training in both medical oncology and hematology, so it is not uncommon to see doctors practice a combination of the two, or choose to concentrate on one specific subspecialty.

What conditions do oncologists treat? 

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

  • Breast
  • Central nervous system/neurological
  • Colo-rectal
  • Genito-urinary
  • Gynecology
  • Head and neck
  • Lung
  • Hematological malignancy
  • Pediatric
  • Sarcomas
  • Skin
  • Teen and young adult
  • Thyroid
  • Upper gastro-intestinal
  • Bladder
  • Kidney
  • Pancreas

What are the average oncologist salaries? 

The average pay for oncologists in the United States is approximately $403,000, according to an annual Medscape survey in 2021.

The specific pay depends on factors such as level of experience, education and training, geographic location, and specific industry. Below is a breakdown of average oncology salaries by state.

Oncologist average salary by State

StateAverage Annual Salary per Year
District of Columbia$171,243
New Hampshire$186,371
New Jersey$176,720
New Mexico$177,006
New York$159,340
North Carolina$177,294
North Dakota$210,753
Rhode Island$180,611
South Carolina$168,074
South Dakota$191,266
West Virginia$186,358

For more details about studying to become an oncologist or for information about any other medical course, get in touch, and we’ll be happy to help you on to the right path.

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