A gynecologic oncologist is a physician and surgeon who specializes in diagnosing and treating cancers of the female reproductive system. While education requirements vary among countries, in the US, a gynecologic oncologist trains as a gynecologist and obstetrician by completing four years of training in obstetrics and gynecology after medical school. Following that schooling, he or she then typically receives an additional two to four years of specialized training in all areas related to female reproductive cancer and cancer treatment, including radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery and experimental cancer treatments.
Unlike an oncologist, which is a physician who studies and treats cancerous tumors of all kinds, a gynecologic oncologist must typically complete extensive and specialized surgical training in order to perform surgical procedures on the female reproductive system and the surrounding pelvic and internal organs. This surgical expertise is necessary because reproductive cancer often spreads, via a process known as metastasis, to nearby tissues in the body.
This surgical training enables a gynecologic oncologist to perform biopsies and procedures related to surgical staging, which identify the stage of cancer that is present. Identifying the cancer stage is important in determining cancer treatment options for the patient. Following or during surgical staging, the physician may also perform a debulking surgical procedure, also known as cytoreductive surgery, to physically remove as much of the cancer as is possible.
In addition to being a surgeon, a gynecologic oncologist is trained to prescribe and supervise non-surgical cancer treatments, including those that are chemical or radiation-based. To be effective, he or she must stay informed on the latest advances in cancer research and generally act as an all-in-one specialist for women with reproductive cancer.
Many women with reproductive cancer, particularly those with advanced stages of the disease, benefit greatly from the specialized medical care of a gynecologic oncologist. This may be especially true for patients with ovarian cancer, which can be difficult to detect in early stages, or with rare cancers, such as fallopian tube cancer. Women suffering from all stages of cancer and with more common female forms of the disease, such as cervical cancer, endometrial or uterine cancer and vaginal cancer, are often seen by gynecologic oncologists. While breast cancer patients may also be seen by a gynecologic oncologist, physicians who specialize in breast cancer treatment may be even better suited to treat their condition.
Some health insurance companies may require a referral from a physician in order for a patient to be seen by such a specialist. For more information on gynecologic oncology and physicians specializing in it, contact a local hospital, primary care physician or the American Cancer Society.