A cancer diagnosis can be scary and confusing at any age, especially with young children in the family – but there are experts ready to help. They’re called oncologists, which is a fancy way of saying ‘cancer doctor’. Knowing more about how they treat cancer can make things a little less scary.
So what is oncology?
It’s a type of health care that specialises in diagnosing and treating different kinds of cancer.
The three main ways of treating cancer are:
This uses different medications to tackle cancer including:
- chemotherapy – or ‘chemo’. This means using drugs that kill cancer cells or shrink tumours.
- hormone therapy. Some types of cancer are ‘fed’ by hormones that occur naturally in the body. Hormone therapy works by blocking the effect of these natural hormones. This can help ‘starve’ the cancer to shrink its size and slow down its spread. Hormone therapy can be given as tablets to swallow, or by injection.
- immunotherapy. The immune system is your body’s own defence force. It’s made up of special organs, cells and chemicals and it can help fight cancer as well as infection. Immunotherapy uses medication and other treatments to boost the body’s immune system to fight cancer.
This means using surgery to remove tumours and any nearby tissue that may have cancer cells.
Radiotherapy (or radiation therapy)
Works by using high energy X-ray beams to kill or damage cancer cells so they can’t grow or spread. The treatment is carefully targeted at cancer cells to avoid harming healthy cells near the cancer.
Bone marrow transplants (also known as stem cell transplants)
Sometimes used for people with blood cancers such as leukaemia, myeloma or lymphoma.
A bone marrow transplant is a treatment that replaces your bone marrow with healthy cells. The replacement cells can either come from your own body or from a donor.
Cancer may be treated with just one of these treatments but sometimes more than one treatment is used. Some people might have chemotherapy followed by surgery, for instance.
What does an oncologist do?
An oncologist works as part of a team that can include other oncologists and other health care workers such as nurses, physiotherapists, psychologists or child life therapists.
Oncologists are doctors who are trained to detect and treat different kinds of cancer (there’s more than 200 cancers that affect different parts of the body).
Different types of oncologists
Some of the different cancer specialists you may hear about include:
- Medical oncologists use medicines to treat cancer. These medicines can include chemotherapy, hormone therapy and immunotherapy.
- Surgical oncologists remove tumours during an operation. They also do biopsies – which means taking samples of tissue from the body so they can be checked for cancer cells by a pathologist in a laboratory.
- Radiation oncologists use radiotherapy to treat cancer.
What is a paediatric oncologist?
Cancers in children are often different to cancers in adults. Doctors who are specially trained to treat childhood cancers are called paediatric oncologists.
When does someone need to see an oncologist?
If someone is diagnosed with cancer, or their doctor suspects they may have cancer, their GP or specialist may refer them to an oncologist. The oncologist will then arrange more tests to check for cancer. If cancer is found, the oncologist will make a plan for treatment.
When cancer treatment is over, the oncologist is still there to help. Follow up appointments are important to make sure everything is going well.