What is Oncology?
An oncologist is a physician who is concerned with the treatment of tumors and cancers. Cancer is when cells in the human body grow in an abnormal or out-of-control way. The goal of oncology is to cure a patient’s cancer, or, if the cancer is incurable, to control the cancer and reduce the symptoms for as long as possible.
Oncologists have several roles in their interaction with patients. They diagnose cancer and determine what stage the cancer is in, or to what extent the cancer has grown. They explain the diagnosis and stage to the patient, and they recommend treatment and deliver care. During treatment, oncologists are responsible for maintaining quality of life for their patients by reducing pain and side effects from medications.
There are three main types of oncologists:
Medical Oncologists specialize in the use of medications, especially chemotherapy, to kill cancer cells. In some areas, the term “medical oncologist” refers to the oncologist who is overall in charge of making decisions about a patient’s treatment.
Surgical Oncologists specialize in surgical treatments for cancer, such as biopsies (where small tissue samples are taken and examined), or surgical removal of tumors and surrounding tissue.
Radiation Oncologists specialize in the use of radiation (a kind of high powered x-ray) to kill cancer.
The American Society of Clinical Oncology also recognizes the subspecialties of Gynecological Oncology, which focuses on cancers of the female reproductive tract, and Pediatric Oncology, which deals with cancers that are most common in childhood.
In the United States, nearly one-half of all men and one-third of all women will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetimes. It is an unfortunately common disease that can sometimes be life-threatening. Oncologists provide care to millions of people facing that diagnosis every year.
What is Radiation Oncology?
Radiation oncologists are physicians who are specially trained in the safe use of radiation to treat cancer. Usually, they will manage a patient’s entire radiation treatment, from the imaging that will guide decisions, to the choices about what kind of radiation therapy to use.
Radiation is one of the few substances that can kill cancer cells and even shrink tumors. It does this by damaging DNA. When DNA becomes sufficiently damaged, cells can no longer reproduce, and they stop growing and die. Cancer cells are more susceptible to radiation than healthy tissue, because they reproduce faster. So typically, cancer cells exposed to radiation will be affected faster than healthy cells will. However it’s still important to protect healthy tissue as much as possible.
There are three ways that radiation can be delivered to the body. It can come from outside the body, delivered by a machine in much the same way x-rays are taken. This is called external-beam radiation. Sometimes the radiation is delivered internally, which is called brachytherapy. Tiny pellets of radioactive material are placed directly onto the cancer, where they can release radiation for a period of time. Some cancers are best treated systemically, with radioactive substances that travel through the bloodstream. Radiation oncologists decide which type of radiation therapy is best, developing a treatment plan for each patient that maximizes the benefits of the radiation while minimizing the risk to any healthy tissue.
Radiation oncologists may work with other kinds of physicians, such as medical oncologists or surgeons, to treat their patients. Sometimes patients are anxious about radiation therapy because it sounds dangerous. But radiation therapy won’t turn you radioactive. It’s safe, and so effective against many different types of cancer that it is one of the most common cancer treatments. Depending on the treatment, it may not even have noticeable side effects.
Radiation oncologists can be important allies in your fight against cancer.