Oncologists are doctors who diagnose and treat cancer. They often act as the primary healthcare provider for someone with cancer—designing treatment plans, offering supportive care, and sometimes coordinating treatment with other specialists.
What Does an Oncologist Do?
Oncology is the study of cancer. Oncologists specialize in managing and treating patients throughout the disease, which involves:
Their work isn’t limited to cancer treatment, however. Many oncologists are board-certified to practice hematology as well, treating patients with blood conditions including:
Oncologists typically have a specialty within the field, so they often expand a patient’s team to include the right doctors for a chosen treatment plan.
Types of oncologists include:
Other oncology specialists focus on treating cancer in specific areas of the body. For example, gynecologic oncologists treat uterine, ovarian, and cervical cancers, while a hematologist-oncologist focuses on blood cancers. Some pediatric oncologists specialize in cancers common in children and teenagers.
Education and Training
As medical doctors, oncologists’ study of cancer and blood disorders begins in medical school, after which paths diverge depending on a doctor’s chosen specialty.
After completing medical school, oncology students:
- Advance to a two- to five-year residency program, usually in internal medicine or surgery
- Obtain their medical license and pass required board certification exams
- Complete graduate or fellowship program in a chosen oncology specialty
- Pass subsequent licensing exams
Reasons to See an Oncologist
Your general practitioner or family doctor may refer you to an oncologist if they want an expert’s opinion in a specific field or can’t determine a cancer diagnosis. This intent is to narrow down—and rule out—potential causes of an issue so that you get the best course of treatment possible.
Your doctor might refer to you an oncologist to:
Test an Unusual Growth or Lump
Doctor’s offices usually aren’t equipped to diagnose a cancerous tumor, so they’ll refer you to an oncologist for further testing. Most suspected tumors are benign or harmless, but this referral helps the doctor:
Provide Cancer Treatment
If you have a confirmed cancer diagnosis, the doctor will refer you to an oncologist who will review your case individually, explain all of your treatment options, and offer their recommendation.
Depending on cancer, its stage, and any potential health complications, this plan could include:
Get a Second Opinion
Cancer is a complex disease, and its treatments continue to evolve. Asking for another oncologist’s evaluation is common practice, especially for an expert in specific cancer or body part.
This second opinion can help to:
Diagnose and Treat Blood Disorders
Many oncologists also specialize in hematology—the study and treatment of diseases related to the blood.
Your doctor may refer you to a hematology-certified oncologist for treatment if you have:
- Symptoms of anemia, like brittle nails, a swollen tongue, an enlarged spleen, heart problems, or fatigue
- Symptoms of sickle cell disease, like frequent infections, swollen hands and feet, vision problems, or severe episodes of pain
- Symptoms of thrombosis, like swelling, pain, discoloration, or warmth in the affected area
Hematology oncologists also treat patients with clotting disorders like hemophilia, von Willebrand disease, Thalassemia, and cancers of the blood like lymphoma and leukemia.
What to Expect at the Oncologist
Your first visit to an oncologist is a consultation. Ultimately, the doctor’s goal is to identify—or rule out—if and where cancer is present, establish an accurate diagnosis, and provide you with the best resources to overcome your condition.
During this initial appointment, the oncologist will perform a thorough physical examination and take the time to learn more about your medical and family history. Make sure to bring all of your available medical records, including a list of any medications or supplements you take.
The oncologist will also review any scans and tests you’ve already had and perform additional tests if necessary. This generally starts with the oncologist examining your blood, urine, and other bodily fluids for high or low levels of certain substances that could be signs of cancer or blood disorders. They may also run visual imaging tests like CT scans, MRIs, PET scans, or ultrasound exams.
If cancer is suspected, oncologists usually need to perform a biopsy to confirm test results.
Depending on the area in question, there are different biopsy methods to retrieve a small tissue sample. The oncologist’s team—which includes a pathologist—then studies the sample to see if it contains cancer cells.
If your oncologist confirms cancer or blood disorder diagnosis, their next steps are to:
Oncologists will also answer any questions you have, which could include:
- Where and when to get a second opinion
- How the treatment will affect your fertility
- If you’re a good candidate for a clinical trial
- What resources are available, like support groups
- What side effects to expect from your treatment plan
- Your treatment plan’s goals and success rates