Becoming an Oncologist

February 1, 2014

It’s a known fact that cancer is and continues to be one of the deadliest diseases to infect the human population.  In the past, there was little that could be done when one was diagnosed with cancer.  Now, with the help of trained medical professionals, patients diagnosed with cancer are treated on multiple fronts.  One of the primary medical professionals to help cancer patients is the oncologist.  What does it take to pursue a career in this medical specialty? Consider these factors when deciding if a career in oncology is right for you:

Monitoring young patients on the paediatrics ward at Morogoro Hospital, TanzaniaCan I handle disease and death? This blunt question is an important one.  The effects of cancer can be devastating and disturbing.  Patients suffer extreme side effects from surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation.  You must be prepared to see the awful side of human disease.  At the same time, there is much to hopeful about with respect to new cancer treatments, so having a positive, healing spirit and mindset is vital.  You should attempt to gain experience with cancer patients and their families by volunteering at a hospital or in an independent oncology practice.  Hooking up with a cancer organization can also help you determine whether oncology is the right path for you.

Can I handle another ten years of schooling after I earn my undergraduate degree? Be prepared for the training involved in becoming an oncologist.  You’ll need to be very successful in your undergraduate studies, score high on the MCAT, gain medical experience in a paid or volunteer setting, and gain admission into medical school.  After completing four years of medical school training, you’ll participate in a 3-4 year residency where you’ll begin specializing in oncology.  At the end of your residency, you’ll take the necessary exams to become licensed and board certified. The final stretch of your training involves choosing an oncology sub-specialty; these include pediatric oncology, gynecological oncology, radiation oncology, and surgical oncology. Once you’ve received training in your oncology sub-specialty, you’ll take one last exam to become certified.

A Gap Medics student passing instruments to the dentist whilst on her dentistry work experience placement in Tanzania. What type of work conditions and duties can I handle? As an oncologist, you can expect regular work hours in a high-tech medical environment. You’ll work in either a hospital or a private practice or both; hospital privileges are crucial for an oncologist to have to be an effective medical professional.  In your interactions with patients, you’ll be their first advocate, primary educator, and professional healer as they battle this grueling disease. You’ll deal with patients and families of all backgrounds; knowing how to help them navigate the disease, the insurance system, and easing their fears is critical and a key part of your responsibilities.

Once you begin to consider the answers to these questions, you’ll start to know whether a career as an oncologist is right for you. If you want to work in oncology, but are unsure about your ability to complete medical school and the subsequent residencies, you may want to consider pursuing a career as an oncology nurse instead.  Either way, you’ll be making a tremendous difference in the lives of cancer patients. — Post by Madelaine Kingsbury.