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.


  • universities and colleges

  • education and government departments

  • business and industry

  • research organisations

  • consulting agencies

  • hospitals, clinics and other health care facilities

  • private practice

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


Lusaka Apex Medical University, University of Pretoria, University of Stellenbosch, University of the Free State, University of the Witwatersrand

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