A radiation oncologist is a medical doctor who specializes in therapeutic procedures involving radiant energy and its components, and the study and control of diseases, such as cancer. Radiation therapy uses high-energy radiation to destroy cancer cells or reduce pain. The radiation prevents the cancerous cells from reproducing. Those doctors who decide to pursue a career as a radiation oncologist can receive additional training in an even more specialized field, hospice and palliative medicine. The subspecialty is relevant for those wanting to prevent or limit the suffering that patients with terminal illnesses may experience.
Many forms of cancer, particularly those forms where malignant tumors form, require the work of a radiation oncologist. Undergoing radiation treatment requires the oversight of doctors who are knowledgeable in all aspects of the procedure and of the disease. A radiation oncologist will design a cancer treatment plan that is specific to each patient. After she prescribes the treatment plan, she will also ensure that it is carried out according to the specifics of the prescription.
There is more than one way that a radiation oncologist uses radiation to cure cancer. She can generate the radiation from a machine outside the body of the patient, called proton therapy or external beam radiation therapy. In the alternative, she can administer the radiation therapy from sources that are radioactive and that are internal, called brachytherapy. Each case is unique and must be looked at with care before deciding which method is best for the patient.
Sometimes there are side effects for those patients receiving radiation therapy. In some cases, the side effects are relatively minor, and in other cases, they are quite severe. The radiation oncologist will monitor the patient, work to identify any side effects, and then attempt to treat or prevent the side effects from occurring. While trying to keep side effects to a minimum, the main concern is combating the disease in the patient.
Typically, a radiation oncologist will work with other doctors as part of a team – all focused around radiation oncology. The other team members can include radiation oncology nurses and technicians, pathologists, and surgeons. Each person performs a specific role and all are thoroughly educated and trained for their job responsibilities. A radiation oncologist must finish four years of undergraduate work, four years of medical school, one year in a general medical residency program, and then four additional years in a residency program that specializes in radiation oncology.