What is an oncologist?

Cancer is a leading cause of death and a serious threat to human health. This disease demands specialised care and expertise. At the forefront of this battle is the oncologist, a medical professional who is trained to deal with the complexities of a cancer diagnosis, treatment, and care. We explore the essential role of oncologists, their roles and responsibilities and how their care has an impact on patients’ lives and recovery. 

Types of oncologists

An oncologist is a medical doctor who specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer. They utilise a range of approaches including surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapies to manage the disease. Oncologists work in various subspecialties and each type of oncologist specialises in different aspects of cancer care. They also collaborate closely with multidisciplinary healthcare teams to provide personalised treatment plans, offer supportive care and guide patients through their journey with expertise, empathy, and a commitment to improving outcomes and quality of life. Some of the most common types of oncologists are: 

  • Medical Oncologist: specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer in adults. They use therapies such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy to combat the disease. They also work with other specialists, like radiologists, palliative care practitioners and psychologists. 
  • Surgical Oncologists: are trained in the surgical management of cancer and perform procedures such as biopsies, tumour removal, lymph node dissection, and various types of reconstructive surgery. They often work alongside medical oncologists to provide integrated treatment plans.
  • Radiation Oncologists: are oncologists who specialise in the use of radiation therapy to treat cancer. They use advanced techniques to target and destroy cancer cells while minimising damage to surrounding healthy tissue. They collaborate with other oncologists to incorporate radiation therapy into cancer treatment plans, providing expertise in radiation dosage, treatment delivery, and managing side effects.
  • Paediatric Oncologist: focuses on diagnosing and treating cancer in children and adolescents. They work closely with other specialists to deliver specialised care tailored to the needs of young patients, along with their families. 
  • Gynaecologic Oncologists: specialise in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers affecting the female reproductive system, including ovarian, uterine, cervical, vaginal, and vulvar cancers. The Cancer Association of South Africa confirms that cervical cancer is the second most common form of cancer affecting women in the country after breast cancer. It’s caused by the human papillomavirus (HPV). Gynaecologic oncologists provide comprehensive care, including surgery, chemotherapy, and targeted therapies to optimise treatment outcomes. Discover more about women’s reproductive health awareness.
  • Hematologist-Oncologist: specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of blood cancers, such as leukemia, lymphoma, and multiple myeloma. They manage complex treatments, including chemotherapy, immunotherapy stem cell transplantation, and targeted therapies.
  • Urologic oncologist: specialises in the diagnosis and treatment of cancers affecting the genitourinary system, including the kidneys, bladder, prostate, testes, and adrenal glands. They employ surgical and nonsurgical approaches to provide comprehensive care that is tailored to each patient’s unique condition. 

Roles and responsibilities of oncologists

The primary role of an oncologist relates to the diagnosis of the disease, treatment planning, treatment administration and monitoring, and providing supportive care. 

  1. Diagnosis. Oncologists will use a variety of methods to uncover what type of cancer a patient has, like imaging techniques such as an MRI, CT scan, PET scan or ultrasound. They will also perform biopsies to obtain tissue samples for analysis to determine the type, stage, and genetic makeup of the cancer. Once they have the results, they’re responsible for the interpretation of the diagnostics, and after consulting with pathologists, radiologists, and other specialists will confirm the diagnoses.
  2. Treatment planning. Once they’ve conducted a thorough assessment, they will formulate a personalised treatment plan, which could include a combination of radiation therapy, medication or even surgery. They will also consider key factors such as the cancer stage. A critical responsibility is to communicate the proposed plan to the patient, explaining the various treatment options, potential risks and benefits, and anticipated outcomes so that the individual can make an informed decision regarding their healthcare journey. 
  3. Treatment administration. The oncologist will provide interventions to manage the cancer. They could recommend surgery to remove tumours, chemotherapy, immunotherapy or hormone therapy. They are responsible for monitoring patients for treatment responses and side effects. In this manner, adjustments to the treatment plan can be made, if necessary. 
  4. Supportive care. An oncologist will need to manage cancer-related symptoms such as pain, fatigue and nausea using supportive care services. By monitoring patients for treatment-related side effects and complications, they can provide medical support promptly. They also need to be adept at addressing psychological and emotional issues by providing counselling, support group services, palliative care, hospice care, and end-of-life care to enhance patients’ quality of life and well-being.

What to expect: the oncologist-patient relationship

The patient-oncologist relationship is an essential component of cancer care and is deeply rooted in communication, empathy, trust, and shared decision-making.

  • Communication and empathy. Effective communication is essential for ensuring that patients understand their diagnosis, treatment options, and prognosis. Oncologists have to be adept at conveying complex medical information in a way that is understandable to their patients. A cancer diagnosis can cause fear, anxiety, and depression. For this reason, oncologists need to demonstrate empathy and compassion, acknowledging the emotional impact of the disease, in order to provide support for their patients.
  • Establishing trust. Building trust takes time and requires consistent and compassionate care. It is strengthened when oncologists are honest and transparent about the process, risks and prognosis of different treatments. Patients should be involved in honest discussions about their treatment plans at all times. 
  • Shared decision-making. This involves collaborative discussions between patients and oncologists to determine the most suitable treatment plan based on the patient’s preferences, values, and medical considerations. Oncologists need to respect patients’ preferences, allowing them to actively participate in decisions about their care. Patients may have different priorities and preferences regarding treatment outcomes, such as maximising recovery, minimising side effects, or preserving their quality of life. Oncologists need to support these choices and help their patients navigate treatment decisions in line with their expectations and outcomes. 

Get healthcare cover with specialist benefits 

You can rely on our healthcare cover, with specialist benefits should you need to see an oncologist. Bloom Financial Services offers flexible and affordable health insurance, medical aid and gap cover that suits your individual needs and budget. Contact our offices and speak with one of our trained consultants to discuss which healthcare plan would suit you.

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