Choosing a subspecialty in oncology

June 10, 2014

Surgeons at Iringa Regional Hospital in the midst of a procedure on a patient. A medical oncologist is a physician who specializes in treating people with various types of cancer, but cancer is often a very complicated disease. Because of the complexity of cancer and its treatments, additional subspecialties have evolved within the field of oncology.

The requirements for each subspecialty may vary. In general, after completing a residency in medical oncology, an additional post residency fellowship in the specific subspecialty of interest will be required. If you are considering a career in oncology, you have several options to consider. The first step is learning about each subspecialty, which will help you determine what is right for you.

Radiation oncology

Radiation therapy is the use of high energy waves or particles to kill cancer cells. A radiation oncologist develops a treatment plan using radiation to target and treat cancer. Doctors interested in becoming radiation oncologists may choose to complete a three to four year medical oncology residency followed by a fellowship in radiation oncology. Four year radiation oncology residencies, which combine both medical oncology and radiation oncology, may also be an option.  

Gynecological oncology

A gynecological oncologist treats cancers of the female reproductive system, such as cervical, ovarian and uterine cancer. Gynecological oncologists will work closely with surgical and radiation oncologists to determine the best approach to treating female reproductive cancers. The road to becoming a gynecological oncologist includes completing a four year residency in gynecology. After that, a three year residency in gynecological oncology will need to be completed. 

Pediatric oncology

Pediatric oncologists treat children with cancer. Treating children with cancer is not the same as treating adults. There are certain types of cancers, such as neuroblastoma, which only affect children. In addition, treatment protocols or treatment plans may be different for children and adults even if the same cancer is being treated.

After graduating from medical school, a three year residency in pediatrics is the first step in becoming a pediatric oncologist. A pediatric residency will focus on different areas of medicine including cardiology, oncology and ambulatory care. The next step is to complete a three year post residency fellowship in pediatric oncology. The residency must be three years in order to meet the requirements to become board certified in pediatric oncology. 

Surgical oncology

Surgery is one of the primary ways that a variety of cancers are treated.  A surgical oncologist is trained in doing surgery in order to remove cancerous tumors. Although most other oncological subspecialties first train in medical oncology or another area of internal medicine, surgical oncology is different. Surgical oncologists first complete a five year general surgery residency. More education and training follows with a three year fellowship in surgical oncology.


Cancers of the brain and spinal cord often require precise treatment to avoid causing damage to healthy tissue. Neuro-oncologists specialize in treating patients who have cancers of the brain and spinal cord, such as brain tumors. People interested in becoming a neuro-oncologist will need to complete a three year residency in neurology. The next phase of training usually involves completing a two year fellowship in neuro-oncology.