The Different Types of Oncologists

One type of oncologist caring for a patient
Caiaimage/Martin Barraud / Getty Images

Oncologists are medical doctors who specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer, but there are several types. Medical oncologists use medicine such as chemotherapy, radiation oncologists treat cancer with radiation, and surgical oncologists perform surgery to remove tumors, but there are several non-oncology physicians who play an important role as part of the cancer care team. Learn about these different types of physicians, and how to find a good oncologist for your particular type of cancer.

Oncology Training

An oncologist goes through many years of training. This begins with 4 years of undergraduate work at a college or university followed by 4 years of medical school. After graduation from medical school, these physicians complete a 3-year residency in internal medicine (or pediatrics) followed by 3 years as a medical fellow in oncology. Some oncology specialties require more than this. Many oncologists have more training as well, such as graduate work in the sciences needed to manage a research laboratory.

Several Primary Types

There are a number of different types of oncologists, which can be very confusing if you decide to look at the phone book or online to find an oncologist. Types of oncologists include:

Medical Oncologists

Medical oncologists treat cancer with medications including chemotherapy, targeted therapies, immunotherapy, and manage other therapies that are needed to control the symptoms of cancer and side effects of treatment. For many people, their medical oncologist acts as their main doctor during cancer treatment, and coordinates care received by other types of doctors and specialists. If a cancer is incurable and reasonable treatment options are no longer available, they also help people find palliative care or hospice care.

Radiation Oncologists

Radiation oncologists are physicians who treat cancer with radiation therapy. These physicians go through residency training in radiology and then subspecialize by doing a fellowship in radiation oncology. They are responsible for "mapping" out the area on your body that will be treated with radiation or proton beam therapy and calculating the radiation dose and the number of treatments that are optimal for your cancer. A radiation therapist may treat symptoms related to radiation therapy (such as dry mouth and radiation burns) but it is often your medical oncologists who manages the full spectrum of your symptoms.

Radiation oncologists are becoming increasingly involved in patient care with many types of cancer. While radiation therapy has often been used to "clean up" cells that may have been left behind during surgery, or as a palliative care treatment (to reduce pain but not extend life), these doctors are now using specialized techniques such as stereotactic body radiotherapy (SBRT) with a curative intent both with primary tumors, and to eliminate areas of cancer that may have spread to other regions of the body (metastases).

Surgical Oncologists

Surgical oncologists are physicians are surgeons who treat cancer with surgical procedures. With lung cancer, it is common for thoracic surgeons to perform lung cancer surgery. Some surgeons may perform only breast cancer surgeries. With prostate cancer, it is often a urologist who performs surgery, whereas with some head and neck cancers, otolaryngologists (ENT physicians) perform many of the surgeries.

Some plastic surgeons focus on people with cancer as well, such as those who specialize in breast reconstruction or those who help to restore a patient's appearance after other types of cancer surgery.

Gynecologic Oncologists

Gyn oncologists treat primarily ovarian, uterine, and cervical cancers. In many cases, they perform the function of both medical oncologists and surgical oncologists in that they both perform surgeries for these cancers and design chemotherapy protocols. With ovarian cancer, the surgical procedures are very challenging, and it's been found that survival is better when the surgery is performed by one of these specialists.

Pediatric Oncologists

Pediatric oncologists specialize in the treatment of cancers in children, usually those between birth and the age of 18. Since the survival rate for many of these cancers are improving, and since these children will need to live with any long-term effects of cancer treatment for many years, many pediatric oncologists are leading the way in addressing "survivorship" and the ongoing needs of cancer survivors.

Hematologist-Oncologists

The term "hematologist-oncologist" may be used as an alternative to the term oncologist alone, referring to doctors who have completed a fellowship in hematology and oncology. It is increasingly being used now to specify physicians who specialize in the treatment of blood-related cancers, such as leukemias, lymphomas, and myeloma. Blood-related cancers are often treated with extensive chemotherapy and targeted therapies, and less often with radiation or surgery, making this type of oncologist very central in patient care.

Subspecialty Oncologists

With the complexity of cancer care, newer specialties are arising to address specific needs. Some of these include:

  • Neuro-oncologists: These physicians may treat patients who have cancers of the brain and spinal cord, but may also manage neurological side effects of cancer treatments, such as neuropathy from chemotherapy.
  • Cardio-oncology: Many of the treatments used for cancer, including some chemotherapy drugs, some targeted therapies, as well as radiation therapy to the left side of the chest can affect the heart. As people live longer with cancer, the need to address these issues is rapidly increasing.

Other Doctors and Specialists Who Care for Cancer Patients

In addition to oncologists, there are often several other types of doctors (and health care providers) who may be involved in your care. These may include:

Pathologists

You may think of pathologists as doctors who perform autopsies and look at slides containing cancer cells under a microscope. While they do often perform these important functions, the role of pathologists in cancer treatment has expanded greatly in the past few years. With the advent of targeted therapy, many pathologists are taking an active role as part of a cancer patient's health team. In addition, to making a diagnosis of cancer and the type of cancer, pathologists also interpret studies done to determine the molecular profile of cancer, such as next generation sequencing.

Palliative Care Specialists

Palliative care physicians are doctors who specialize in improving the quality of life for people with cancer rather than directly treating cancer. It's important to note that palliative care is not the same as hospice. Your medical oncologist may recommend that you see a palliative care specialist even if your cancer is highly curable in order to maximize your comfort during treatment. It's recently been found that palliative care may not only help people with advanced cancer live better, but it may extend survival.

Genetic Counselors

The role of genetics in cancer is well established, and determining if a cancer is hereditary may help people make decisions regarding their treatment.

Rehabilitation Specialists

Now that so many people are surviving cancer, the concept of survivorship is finally being addressed. Rehabilitation specialists—such as those who are board-certified in physical medicine and rehabilitation—may design a program for you during or after treatment with the goal of returning you to health. The late effects of cancer treatment can range from physical disabilities to pain to posttraumatic stress in cancer survivors, and this type of physician can help coordinate treatments (such as physical therapy, occupational therapy, counseling, and more) in order to help you have the best quality of life with cancer.

Other Specialties

Physicians from many other specialties are often involved in cancer care. For example, pulmonologists are lung specialists who often assist in helping people with lung cancer, and gastroenterologists are doctors who specialize in the digestive tract and often help manage the treatment of esophageal cancers, stomach cancers, and colon cancers.

Choosing an Oncologist

Many people wonder how to choose an oncologist when they are diagnosed with cancer. There are several factors to consider in making these choices. Studies suggest that doctors who care for greater numbers of patients with particular cancers have better outcomes, and your choice of an oncologist may come down to choosing the best cancer treatment center available. If you have an uncommon type of cancer or wish to take part in clinical trials, the larger cancer centers (such as a National-Cancer Institute designated cancer center) may offer more options. Other considerations include:

  • Your insurance coverage
  • Your location
  • Travel preferences
  • Location of clinical trials

Second Opinions

When you have cancer, it can be important to get a second opinion. In doing so it's often recommended that your second opinion doctor be part of a separate medical system and ideally part of one of the larger cancer centers. Even if your second opinion (or third or fourth) recommends the same treatments, the opinion can help you feel more confident in the choices you have made for treatment.

An excellent option is now available for those who would like a second opinion but are hesitant to travel. Several of the larger centers now offer remote second opinions, in which an oncologist can review your medical history and talk to you on the phone about your treatment and whether the center has anything unique to offer that would warrant traveling.

Communicating With Your Doctors

As noted by scanning the lists above, you may have several different physicians helping to manage your cancer. It's important to talk with these physicians and understand clearly what symptoms and treatments are being managed by each one. Who do you call if you have a symptom at 2 am? Most often your medical oncologist will play the role of coordinator but it's important to establish this before you need help.

A Word From Verywell

Many people who have cancer have their care provided by several types of oncologists and other specialists. Fortunately, "multidisciplinary care" is being talked about extensively, and physicians are increasingly working together to design a comprehensive treatment program for patients in which all members are aware of the roles of other members. In this way, the doctors caring for you with cancer can see the big picture rather than performing a solitary duty in treatment.

Was this page helpful?
Article Sources