It is no secret that oncology is brimming with potential: new therapies and technologies are making their marks like never before. These innovations are being brought to light by three types of oncology specialists: medical, radiation and surgical.
Each specialist brings their unique expertise to the common goal of fighting cancer, so medical students drawn to the field should know what each does and the training required. Gary Schiller, MD, professor of hematology-oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, says most medical students begin to focus on oncology during their second year or during clerkship.
"We were all drawn in by the excitement of oncology, but now as physicians who care for oncology patients, we're defined by the tools of our trade," says Dr. Schiller, who also directs the UCLA Hematologic Malignancy/Stem Cell Transplantation Program. "We each use medical agents, radiation or surgery accordingly to treat our patients."
Medical oncologists treat cancer using various forms of medication. "We have various forms of chemotherapy at our disposal, including oral, subcutaneous and IV drugs. We also use immunotherapy," Dr. Schiller says. "Our rapid drug development and immunotherapeutics are drawing many young people into the field because they're interested in the dynamic nature of our treatment options."
Medical oncologists are physicians who, after graduating from a four-year medical or osteopathic school, complete a three-year residency. Internal medicine or pediatrics are typical specialties for this stage of training.
Then comes a three- to five-year fellowship in hematology. Those who want to work within oncology choose a hematology-oncology fellowship.
Radiation oncologists are specialist physicians who use ionizing radiation to treat cancer. Radiation can be curative, either alone or in combination with surgery and chemotherapy. It may also be used palliatively, to relieve symptoms in patients with incurable cancers.
U.S. radiation oncologists complete four years of residency training in addition to an internship. Residency training focuses on clinical oncology, the physics and biology of ionizing radiation, and how to treat cancer patients using radiation.
As the name suggests, surgical oncologists treat malignancies using surgical techniques. Accordingly, they first complete a five-year residency in general surgery before completing a two-year fellowship in complex general surgical oncology.
Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, which is affiliated with the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, offers a two-year complex surgical oncology fellowship for candidates who have completed an approved general surgery residency and who are board-eligible or board-certified.
Types of oncology specialists
Though the training for each type of oncology specialist differs significantly, they share the commonality of needing to work in teams and collaborate with colleagues in a variety of specialties and disciplines.
"People tend to be interested in a career in oncology based on a personal or family experience with cancer exposure or a desire to perform research or a bit of both," Dr. Schiller says. "How they decide to pursue medical, radiation or surgical is more mysterious."
By Darcy Lewis