Whenever you see the suffix “logy” attached to another part of a word, it means “study.” Oncology is the study of tumors, and onco means bulk, mass or tumor. An oncologist is a doctor who not only studies tumors but tries to prevent them and treats the medical problems that result from tumors. Oncologists can specialize in a variety of areas.
Also called cancer specialists, oncologists begin their training with a four-year college degree, often on a pre-med track. They spend another four years in medical school and then, three or four years in a residency program. Many oncologists also attend fellowships -- an extended training program in which they learn specialized skills. During training, all oncologists learn the basics of how tumors grow, possible causes, diagnostic procedures and treatment methods. They learn how to stage cancer -- determine how far a tumor has progressed – and determine how aggressive it is.
Oncologists can specialize in medical, surgical or radiation oncology, as well as pediatric oncology and gynecological oncology. Medical oncologists start out as internists and then take at least two years of training to treat cancer with medications, also known as chemotherapy. Surgical oncologists start out as surgeons and also complete an additional two years of surgical oncology training; they treat tumors by removing them from the body. Radiation oncologists use radiation to treat cancer; they also begin in internal medicine, but only in their first year of residency. The remaining four years are dedicated to radiation therapy. Pediatric oncologists specialize in the treatment of children with cancer, and gynecological oncologists specialize in the female reproductive system.
With the exception of pediatric oncologists, who see only children and adolescents, oncologists may treat patients of any age. They may spend much of their day in an office or clinic, with rounds at the hospital once or twice a day. Some oncologists, such as radiation oncologists, spend most of their day treating patients in a hospital or outpatient treatment center, and may not have a separate office. In addition to other doctors who work with the same patients, such as family practice doctors, oncologists work with a wide variety of health-care professionals, including nurses, pharmacists, dieticians and respiratory therapists.
The Up Side
Each patient gets an individual treatment plan designed around the type, stage and aggressiveness of the cancer, as well as the patient’s choices regarding treatment. The oncologist helps the patient to study the options and designs the plan based on the patient’s needs and choices. Although some people think of oncology as being a downer of a profession, many patients can be cured of cancer, and oncologists often participate in trials of new treatments that may be life-saving.
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