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Specialty Description

A medical oncologist is an internist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of all types of cancer and other benign and malignant tumors.

What is a medical oncologist?

A medical oncologist is an internist who specializes in the diagnosis and treatment of all types of cancer and other benign and malignant tumors. This specialist decides on and administers therapy for these malignancies as well as consults with surgeons and radiation oncologists on other treatments for cancer.

A career in oncology provides the opportunity to be part of a group of exciting specialties that continue to produce new discoveries and enhanced treatment for cancer patients. Oncology blends important health care advances in a setting of committed care involving a team approach. It is a model of multidisciplinary care where the oncologist holds a leadership role in managing cancer research and the team. As such, oncologists have a unique opportunity to form a meaningful relationship with patients.

One can pursue oncology practice through a number of specialties including hematology and oncology or medical oncology (adults), pediatric oncology (children), or geriatric oncology (older adults).

What does a medical oncologist do?

Oncologists focus on the management of cancer using anti-cancer drugs and biologics. Most of the surgical specialties have subspecialty groups in oncology, and radiation oncology uses high-energy radiation to manage cancer patients. As with most specialties, oncology practice can be applied in many settings—the most common ones include academic practice, community practice, and industry or government.

  • Academic practice is a practice closely aligned with a university or medical school whose stated goals are generally education, research and patient care.

  • Community practice, or “private practice,” pursues practice within organizations small and large for which care of patients is the primary goal.

  • Industry practice is closely tied to the overall mission of the organization. Pharmaceutical and biotechnology firms view their mission as performing research to expand knowledge and create new treatment options for patients.

  • Government practice generally involves physicians who work to develop (or support the development of) public policy primarily through developing and implementing regulations, or who are employed by the military to provide patient care.

Oncology has been described as “science combined with caring.” Cancer patients represent some of the most challenging cases in medicine. Oncologists must be skilled in the science of cancer treatment, but equally important is their ability to communicate extremely well as they help patients and families navigate this difficult disease—including treatment, survivorship and care at end of life.

While this is largely a consultative specialty, most oncologists serve as the primary “medical home” for patients undergoing cancer treatment. The relationship between oncologists and their patients, families and caregivers is often a special one during this period of time and typically involves periodic contact throughout the course of the patient’s life.