Oncologists are physicians who study, diagnose, and treat the tumors caused by cancer. When an individual is diagnosed with cancer, an oncologist takes charge of the patient’s overall care and treatment through all phases of the disease. There are three primary areas within clinical oncology: medical oncology, surgical oncology, and radiation oncology.
Oncologist Career History
The history of cancer dates back to early Greek and Roman writings, which included descriptions of the disease. It is clear that cancer affects all of the world’s populations and has been the subject of intense medical investigations. According to the American Cancer Society, approximately 1.4 million people are diagnosed with cancer each year. Cancer ranks second only to heart disease as the leading cause of death.
Developments in the late 20th century, such as improvements in cancer treatment and early detection, have advanced the discipline of oncology and led to further studies. In the 1950s, minor success with cytotoxic chemotherapy initiated active research to develop anticancer agents. Although most useful drugs have side effects, oncologists continue to conduct studies to find better treatments. Increased public awareness of the positive effects of a healthy diet and exercise as well as the harmful effects of smoking has helped lower the risk of developing many types of cancer. Many believe that cancer will someday become a largely preventable disease.
Oncologist Career Description
An oncologist is a physician who specializes in the study, diagnosis, and treatment of cancerous tumors. Because cancer can affect any organ in the body, and individuals of any age, there are many different kinds of oncologists. For example, medical oncologists have studied internal medicine and treat cancer through chemotherapy. Pediatric oncologists are pediatricians who specialize in cancers that affect infants and children. Gynecological oncologists specialize in cancers that attack the female reproductive organs, including the ovary, cervix, and uterus. Radiation oncologists treat tumors through radiation therapy. Surgical oncologists are surgeons who specialize in removing cancerous tissue to prevent its growth. There are many other subspecialties within the practice of oncology. In fact, there are almost as many different subspecialties of oncology as there are different kinds of doctors.
A clinical oncologist conducts clinical trials in order to identify the most successful strategies for fighting cancer. Clinical trials are studies that are conducted on consenting patients. By comparing the results of two different treatments on two groups of patients with similar symptoms, clinical oncologists are able to determine which methods are more effective in eliminating or retarding the development of cancer.
Because cancer can spread throughout the organs of the body, oncologists often work together in teams to identify the appropriate strategy for helping a patient. Because many patients undergo a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and surgery to treat cancer, it is extremely important for the physicians to coordinate the treatment process.
Oncologist Career Requirements
If you are interested in a career as an oncologist, the first step is to take high school college preparatory courses. Science courses, such as biology, chemistry, physics, and anatomy, will help prepare you for college. Math courses, such as algebra, geometry, and trigonometry, are also important. English and speech classes will help you develop your research, writing, and oral communication skills. Computer science courses are also essential.
Your next step in becoming an oncologist is to earn a bachelor’s degree at an accredited college or university. Students who plan to go to medical school typically major in a science, such as biology or chemistry. Regardless of the major, course work should emphasize the sciences and include classes such as biology, chemistry, anatomy, and physiology. Other important classes to take include mathematics, such as calculus, English, ethics, and psychology. Volunteering or working at a hospital during your college years is also an excellent way to gain experience working in a medical setting.
After receiving an undergraduate degree, you need to apply to, and be accepted by, a medical school. Admission is competitive, and applicants must undergo a fairly extensive and difficult admissions process that takes into consideration grade point averages, scores on the Medical College Admission Test (MCAT), and professor recommendations. Most students apply to several schools early in their senior year of college. Only about one-third of the applicants are accepted.
For the first two years of medical school, you attend lectures and classes and do laboratory work. Classes include biochemistry, physiology, pharmacology, psychology, and medical ethics. You also learn to take patient histories, perform routine examinations, and recognize symptoms. In the third and fourth years, you spend time working in hospitals and clinics where you are supervised by residents and physicians. It is during this time that you do rotations. Rotations are brief periods of study in a particular area, such as oncology, pediatrics, psychiatry, and surgery. On rotations you learn the distinctive qualities of different medical specialties and work on diagnosing and treating patients. Medical school lasts four years. At the end of this time, you have earned the degree doctor of medicine (M.D.).
After graduating from medical school, you must pass a standard exam given by the National Board of Medical Examiners. You then complete an internship or transition year during which you decide your area of specialization.
Following your medical schooling and internship, you complete a residency in your chosen specialty. For example, someone interested in gynecologic oncology completes a four-year obstetrics and gynecology residency. Someone interested in medical oncology, on the other hand, does a residency in internal medicine. Following the residency, you will complete a fellowship (specialized study) in oncology. A fellowship in gynecologic oncology, for example, can take from two to four years to complete.
Certification or Licensing
New physicians are required to take an examination to be licensed to practice. Every state requires such an examination. It is conducted through the board of medical examiners in each state.
Certification is highly recommended. Certification for oncologists is administered by boards in their area of specialty. For example, certification for medical oncologists is administered by the American Board of Internal Medicine. Certification for gynecologic oncologists is administered by the American Board of Obstetrics and Gynecology.
Oncologists must be extremely hard working, perceptive, and emotionally balanced individuals. They must also be voracious readers to keep up with the new information about the cause, prevention, and treatment of cancer that is updated constantly. Staying current with new information also requires a proficiency with technology because oncologists must use computers to research new developments. They also need research and writing skills to publish their research results.
In addition to the intellectual rigors of the job, oncologists must be prepared to accept emotional and psychological challenges. Each day, they interact with people who are very ill and frightened. They must be able to maintain objectivity and composure under intensely emotional circumstances. Because oncologists must explain very complex information to patients and their families who may have little or no scientific background, they also must be able to communicate clearly and directly. Excellent interpersonal skills will help the oncologist work as part of a medical team. A surgical oncologist, for example, may have to work with a medical team that includes a dietitian, a physical therapist, the original referring doctor, nurses, and other staff members.
Exploring Oncologist Career
One of the best introductions to a career in health care is to volunteer at a local hospital, clinic, or nursing home. In this way it is possible to get a feel for what it’s like to work around other health care professionals and patients. As in any career, reading as much as possible about the profession, talking with a high school counselor, and interviewing those working in oncology are other important ways to explore your interest.
Oncologists work in virtually all health care settings. Because cancer is such a prevalent disease that takes so many different forms, oncologists are in demand in every area of medical practice. A government-funded medical facility, a private hospital, a university health center, an outpatient clinic, a government agency, a pharmaceutical company, or a research laboratory are all possible employers for the oncologist.
There are no shortcuts to entering the medical profession. Requirements are an M.D. degree, a licensing examination, a one- or two-year internship, and a period of residency that may extend as long as five years.
Upon completing this program, which may take up to 15 years, oncologists are then ready to enter practice. They may choose to open a solo private practice, enter a partnership practice, enter a group practice, or take a salaried job with a managed-care facility or hospital. Salaried positions are also available with federal and state agencies, the military, including the Department of Veterans Affairs, and private companies. Teaching and research jobs are usually obtained after other experience is acquired.
An oncologist can advance by becoming the head of a research or medical department. Department heads must assume extensive administrative responsibilities in addition to patient care. They can also achieve prominence in the field by publishing articles and medical studies, conducting research, and participating in professional organizations, such as the American Cancer Society and the American Society of Clinical Oncology. Highly respected oncologists are asked to speak to the public and advise government bodies on health issues.
According to Physicians Search.com, oncologists receive starting salaries that range from $120,000 to $215,000. Those with three years of experience earn an average salary of $269,298. Salaries range from $155,475 to $473,000. Individual earnings of oncologists will vary, depending on such factors as geographic location, years of experience, professional reputation, and type of oncology practiced. Fringe benefits for oncologists typically include health and dental insurance, paid vacations, and retirement plans.
Oncologists, like many physicians, divide their time between patient consultations, medical procedures, study, research, publishing, and office or departmental administration. Most oncologists work more than 40 hours per week.
Oncologists may see anywhere from 10 to 30 patients each day. In many of these encounters, they may have to deliver devastating health news regarding a malignancy and help patients make extremely difficult choices. They explain the various treatment options, the toxic side effects associated with each option, and give patients realistic assessments of their chances of recovery. As patients undergo treatment, oncologists also help them cope with the pain and discomfort caused both by the disease and the treatment methods.
Oncologist Career Outlook
According to the Occupational Outlook Handbook, employment of all physicians is expected to grow faster than the average for all occupations through 2014 due to continued expansion of the health care industries. However, the specialty of oncology should see stronger growth in response to patient demand for access to specialty care. Due to a growing and aging population, new research, changing diagnostic techniques, and new treatment possibilities, oncologists will have many opportunities for employment.
For More Information:
- American Cancer Society
- American Board of Internal Medicine
- American Society of Clinical Oncology
- Radiation Therapy Oncology Group