Radiation Oncologist

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Radiation Oncologist


Oncology is the study of tumors and cancers. A radiation oncologist is a physician who specializes in treating cancer through radiation therapies and methods. Radiation oncologists investigate the use of x-rays, electrons and gamma rays to destroy cancer. Radiation therapy is used on most types of cancers including breast cancer, lung cancer, prostate cancer, skin cancer, brain tumors and others.

Radiation therapy involves various kinds of radiation treatment techniques. The most common types of radiation therapy are 3-D treatment planning, external beam radiation, IMRT, stereotactic radiosurgery, prostate seed implants, brachytherapy and concurrent chemotherapy and radiation therapy. The oncologist selects the most effective radiation technique, for each particular patient, to destroy abnormal (cancer) cells while sparing the normal surrounding tissue. The process of these treatments is not painful as patients cannot see, smell, taste, hear or feel the radiation treatment.

Roughly half of all cancer patients need radiotherapy at some time during their illness. For those with incurable cancers, the treatment helps patients deal with their symptoms. For example, if they have pain in their bones, radiotherapy can be a very useful treatment. Radical treatment is a method used to try and cure patients. Thus radiation oncologists use a mixture of very aggressive treatment for people who have a good chance of being cured, and very simple treatments for people who have incurable cancer but still need treatment and help.

In many cases, radiation therapy is combined with surgery and chemotherapy to achieve the best outcome. When patients come to a radiation oncologist, they have usually just had surgery or a biopsy. The oncologist will often spend about an hour with the patient just talking about the problem and what the most appropriate therapy is. If a patient needs radiotherapy, the radiation oncologist will plan that treatment. This may involve using computers because some tumors are in sensitive areas like the throat and you have to plan the treatment very carefully to avoid areas like the spinal cord and the brain.

Radiation oncologists use three-dimensional images to work out exactly where the tumor is and where the normal tissues are, so that doctors can give treatment that will not have too many side effects. Radiation therapists carry out the actual treatment that oncologists prescribe. During radiation treatments, the oncologist will generally see the patients about once a week to make sure that they are okay, and to help manage any side effects they might have.
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  Interests and Skills  
Radiation oncologists are interested in helping people fight cancer or at least easing some pain. They have excellent communication skills and can get along with people well and instill confidence. They will need emotional strength and maturity, and passion, empathy and energy. When a patient is diagnosed with an advanced form of cancer, which may sound like a death sentence, the oncologist must be there for them as a friend.

They have the intellectual ability required to successfully complete the required academic training and to pursue a course of lifelong learning and the stamina required to work long hours. They have the ability to deal with many different kinds of people, and enjoy directing the work of others. They must also be proficient in radiation oncology -- they must have and apply the knowledge to diagnose and treat cancer. Also, ethics is a strong point for these types of people because they have to do what is right for their patients with their best interests in mind.

  Typical Tasks  
  • Consult with other medical professionals, especially primary practitioners and confirm the diagnosis suggested by other professionals such as diagnostic radiologists
  • Study x-rays or other radiographic images and medical reports
  • Discuss with the patients and families what procedures are going to be taken
  • Work out the amount of radiation or drugs that should be used
  • Care for cancer patients by treating the affected parts of their body with radiation and x-ray therapies
  • Monitor and care for patients after their treatment
  • Working conditions for radiation oncologists will vary, depending on where they work. For example, those working in a hospital will perform various treatments with patients or could possibly be on call. Yet, those who work in their own private practice will be able to see patients on their own schedule, allowing for a great deal of flexibility.

  Workplaces, Employers and Industries  
  • Many radiation oncologists work in hospital and laboratories, or just visiting patients confined to the hospital. Others have their own private practice or work in a group practice. Some work in academic medicine, teaching in university medical schools and residency programs or for research laboratories, working on new radiation technology.

  Long Term Career Potential  
Radiation oncologists may decide to work in other areas of oncology and help treat patients with chemotherapy or other new technological treatment methods. Alternatively, some might devote their time directly to research, trying to find new ways of curing cancer or finding better methods of radiation therapy. Those involved in research may present their finding in medical journals or write articles as well. Finally, oncologists could move into hospital administration positions or teach at a university medical school.

  Educational Paths  
Becoming a radiation oncologist requires a long educational road, so be prepared for a lifelong learning experience. Most start with a Bachelor of Science (BS) degree, however some Bachelor of Arts (BA) graduates may be accepted into medical school programs. While in high school, take math and science classes. Also, not all medical schools require a bachelor's degree and with good marks, some students can get accepted after two years of undergraduate studies. Check with the school for their requirements before applying.

Radiation oncologists complete four years of medical school and then a year of internship before entering residency graduate education, which usually takes about four years. During this residency program, students will specialize in both radiation oncology and clinical oncology.

Finally, before entering medical school, volunteer in a hospital, nursing home or community center. This will give you valuable experience in dealing with people who need help and what it is like to work as a doctor.

Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2014-15 Edition, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/
Bureau of Labor Statistics, U.S. Department of Labor, Occupational Employment Statistics, 2002, http://www.bls.gov/oes/2002/oes_nat.htm

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  • Diagnostic Medical Sonography

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