What does a Radiation Oncologist do?

Dee Saale
Dee Saale

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.

A radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer through the use of technology similar to an X-ray.
A radiation oncologist specializes in treating cancer through the use of technology similar to an X-ray.

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.

Radiation oncology is a cancer treatment that utilizes strong beams of energy.
Radiation oncology is a cancer treatment that utilizes strong beams of energy.

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.

Radiation oncologists may request laboratory testing to check the progress of cancer treatments.
Radiation oncologists may request laboratory testing to check the progress of cancer treatments.

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.

Radiation therapy may cause hair loss.
Radiation therapy may cause hair loss.

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.

Radiation therapy may cause some cancer patients to experience nausea and vomiting.
Radiation therapy may cause some cancer patients to experience nausea and vomiting.
Radiation is one of the most precise and effective treatments for brain tumors that cannot be addressed through traditional surgery.
Radiation is one of the most precise and effective treatments for brain tumors that cannot be addressed through traditional surgery.
Radiation treatment to the head and neck may damage salivary glands, causing a decrease in saliva production and dry mouth.
Radiation treatment to the head and neck may damage salivary glands, causing a decrease in saliva production and dry mouth.
A radiation oncologist must go over the risks and benefits of each treatment before a plan can be put into place.
A radiation oncologist must go over the risks and benefits of each treatment before a plan can be put into place.
Dee Saale
Dee Saale

Dee is a freelance writer based in Colorado. She has a B.A. in English Literature, as well as a law degree. Dee is especially interested in topics relating to medicine, legal issues, and home improvement, which are her specialty when contributing to wiseGEEK.

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Discussion Comments

icecream17

@GreenWeaver - I read that radiation oncologists offer additional follow up care after the radiation treatments are over in order to ensure that the patient is on the right path.

They say that this part of the job is the most fulfilling part of their job because many patients’ cancers go in remission as the cancer tumors are no longer visible.

The joy that their patients receive I think means more than the hefty salary that many of these radiation oncologists command.

Most earn an average of $300,000 and some earn a lot more than that. This is really a competitive field that a lot of medical students want to get into because it offers so many unique challenges.

GreenWeaver

I just wanted to say that I take my hat off to people looking to pursue a career in radiation oncology. It is a really important field but a difficult one emotionally because you are dealing with people that have cancer and many are terminal. I know I could not work in this field.

I remember when my mother had cancer and had to receive radiation treatment, the radiation oncology staff was so caring and compassionate to my mother that I will never forget it.

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