An oncologist often is the main health care provider for someone who has cancer. These doctors have special training in diagnosing and treating cancer in adults using chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, biological therapy, and targeted therapy. A medical oncologist also gives supportive care and may coordinate treatment given by other specialists. Many oncologists treat all different types of cancer while some oncologists have chosen to specialize in a specific subset of cancers. There are many types of oncologists, however, and it is important to understand the different types.
Cancer is the name for a disease caused when cells in your body divide at a faster than normal rate. Getting diagnosed with cancer is scary, but not every cancer grows quickly and there continues to be great progress in treating many cancers. It is always best to engage in behaviors that lessen your chances of getting cancer but if you are concerned you might have cancer, then you should get tested as soon as possible since early diagnosis can dramatically reduce the impact of cancer. In addition, it is important to get diagnosed correctly and, with over 150 types of cancer, each with different growth profiles and treatment approaches, it is important to see an expert in your specific cancer.
A medical oncologist is typically the first type of oncologist you will see. They are trained to diagnose your specific type of cancer and to treat you with chemotherapy and other types of medications. They are typically not trained to perform surgery or provide other more specialized types of treatment, such as radiation. As a result, if you need surgery or other types of treatment, you will need to see an oncologist who specializes in these procedures or treatments. Your medical oncologist, however, will typically be the physician you go to for ongoing checkups and to help you make future treatment decisions.
When enough radiation enters a cancer cell, the DNA of the cell will be damaged and will no longer be able to divide. Radiation Oncologists are trained to deliver the appropriate amount of radiation to the cancer cells while limiting the amount of radiation to healthy cells. The most well known form of radiation therapy is radiation beam therapy where laser-like beams of radiation are directed at the cancer cells. The beams are designed to pass through the healthy cells with little or no damage and only concentrate in and kill the cancer cells. Sometimes, Radiation Oncologists choose to put a capsule or “seed” containing radioactive material physically in the body right at the tumor. The radiation that emits from the seed will kill the cells nearby. When the tumor is spread throughout the body, Radiation Oncologists may choose to inject a radioactive material into your veins, allowing it to hunt down and kill many of the rapidly dividing cancer cells.
Removing the cancerous cells is one of the most common approaches to treat cancer and many patients diagnosed with cancer will need surgery at some time along their journey. A surgical oncologist is a surgeon with special training on cancer patients. Since it is important to remove as many of the cancer cells as possible, it is important to have a surgical oncologist perform your surgery. Also, since each type of cancer is different, it is important to work with a surgical oncologist with particular experience in your cancer. Note, there are some surgeons who have a lot of experience in cancer but who do not have the designation of Surgical Oncologist.
There are over 150 types of cancers and most of those cancers are very rare and difficult to treat. With so many types of cancers, it is hard for one person to be an expert in every unique variation. It is important to find an oncologist who has a lot of experience with your particular type of cancer.