Definition & Overview

Medical oncology is a medical specialty that focuses on the management of cancer from diagnosis to palliative care. A medical oncologist's main area of expertise is treating cancer using systemic or medication-based therapy. These include the following:

  • Hormonal therapy is a cancer treatment method that works on cancers that are hormone receptor-positive, which means they contain receptors for estrogen or progesterone hormones. In other words, they are dependent or require hormones to grow and further develop. This type of therapy is most effective for breast cancer caused by elevated estrogen levels, and works either by lowering the levels of estrogen in the body or inhibiting the effects of the said hormone so that it will not activate the breast cancer cells.

  • Chemotherapy is the most commonly used treatment for cancer. This method entails injecting a combination of medications into the body to gradually destroy the cancerous cells and keep them from reproducing. Although quite effective, chemotherapy is known to have a lot of side effects because the drugs also tend to affect the body's healthy cells.

Aside from providing systemic treatment, a medical oncologist's secondary role is to oversee the patient's general care, treatment and regularly monitor the patient's general health. Oncologist are also responsible for evaluating the results of ongoing treatments and managing any complications that may arise. Moreover, by tracking the patient's progress, oncologist are the first to determine whether there are special needs to be met.

If the patient requires special treatments, a medical oncologist will arrange them by coordinating with other treatment specialists, such as a radiation oncologist who performs radiation therapy or a surgical oncologist who performs biopsies and surgically removes cancerous tumours and tissue as a way to treat the disease. A medical oncologist may also work closely with a hematologist for blood-related cancers, general surgeons, a plastic surgeon for when the patient requires reconstructive surgery following treatment, or a psychiatrist to help the patient deal with the psychological challenge and emotional stress of battling cancer.

When should you see an Oncologist?

You should see an oncologist immediately after being diagnosed with a malignant or cancerous tumour. Patients are commonly referred to a medical oncologist by their general physician or family doctor following a cancer diagnosis. Once it is confirmed that a tumour is cancerous, the patient will immediately require specialty care from a medical oncologist to start treatment at the soonest possible time.

In choosing a medical oncologist, make sure to look for someone who is experienced in dealing with the type of cancer you have. Oncologists should also have credible training as well as a board certification. Medical oncology also has a research side involving both paper-based research and experimental therapies, so it is best if the oncologist have also written and published articles on the current developments in cancer treatments.

Your rapport with your medical oncologist is also important. He or she should be willing to answer all your questions at length and explain all aspects of your condition so that you can make informed decisions about your treatment. It is also important for patients to feel comfortable with their oncologists, as they will be working together for the entire duration of the treatment.


  • Terri Ades, DNP, FNP-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information, American Cancer Society, Atlanta.
  • Jan C. Buckner, MD, chair of medical oncology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.
  • Harold J. Burstein, MD, staff oncologist, Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Mass.
  • National Cancer Institute web site: "How to find a doctor or treatment facility if you have cancer."
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