Oncology is the study of tumours and cancers. Oncologists are medical doctors who specialize in the study and treament of cancerous tumours. They consult other specialists such as radiologists, surgeons and pathologists, and decide on the course of treatment.

They are often called upon to confirm diagnoses suggested by other medical professionals.
They manage the treatment of patients who have cancer and need radiotherapy, chemotherapy or x-ray treatment.

A radiation oncologist is a physician who specialises 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 tumours and others.

Roughly half of all cancer patients need radio- or chemotherapy 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.

Radiation therapy involves various kinds of radiation treatment techniques. The most common types of radiation therapy are three-dimensional 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.

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 tumours are in sensitive areas such as the throat and the treatment has to be planned very carefully to avoid areas such as the spinal cord and the brain.

Radiation oncologists use three-dimensional images to work out precisely where the tumour and the normal tissue are, so the treatment does not have unnecessary side effects. Radiation therapists carry out the actual treatment that oncologists prescribe. During radiation treatment, the oncologist generally sees the patient about once a week to make sure that they are alright, and to help manage any side effects they might have. They also care for their patients after treatment, until the patient is fully recovered. With all the new technological developments, oncologists can now cure cancers that were incurable 20 years ago.

Personal Requirements

  • have emotional strength and maturity
  • have excellent communication skills
  • get along well with people and instil confidence
  • have the intellectual ability to successfully complete the required academic training
  • have the stamina required to work long hours
  • accurate and meticulous
  • able to make sound decisions in an emergency

How to Enter

Schooling & School Subjects

Compulsory Subjects: Mathematics, Physical Science
Recommended subjects: Life Sciences

  • Pass matric with a Bachelor's pass
  • Meet the admission requirements (APS) set by the university
  • All applications for admission to MBChB and Medical degrees are subject to selection.
  • Due to the limited number of spaces available, only a small percentage of applicants are admitted.

What to Study

MBChB degree at UP, UCT, UFS, Wits, US, UL, UKZN:

  • Theoretical training: 6 years
  • Student internship: 1 year
  • Internship: 2 years
  • Community Service: 1 year at an approved medical faculty.
Registration with the Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) is mandatory for this occupation. Registration as an Independent Medical Practitioner with the HPCSA will only be permitted once all the necessary criteria have been met.

Specialisation in Oncology

To specialise in this area, a number of years of post-graduate study will be required.

Consult the HPCSA website for the most up-to-date information relating to this area of specialization. This information can be found in the various sections under the Professional Board for Medical and Dental (and medical science) professionals.
Refer to the medical faculty of the relevant university for additional information.


  • universities and colleges
  • education and government departments
  • business and industry
  • research organisations
  • consulting agencies
  • hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities
  • private practice

Further Information

Health Professions Council of South Africa (HPCSA) 
(553) of Hamilton and
Madiba Streets,
Arcadia, Pretoria
Tel: (012) 338-9300

Cancer Association of South Africa - CANSA
26 Concorde Road West
Bedfordview, 2008
Johannesburg, Gauteng
Tel: (011) 616-7662

South African Oncology Consortium
Jean Park Chambers
Block 5, Unit 16
252 Jean Avenue
Centurion, 0046
Tel: (012) 667-2067

Getting Started

  • speak to an oncologist about this career
  • read up on developments in the oncology field
  • volunteer to work in a hospital or nursing home
  • do a first aid course with St John Ambulance to ensure that medicine is the right field for you

Programmes by Study Institutions

Related Occupations

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