Description of specialty

Medical oncologists are specialist physicians trained in the investigation and care of patients with cancer. Key areas of a medical oncologist’s work include:

  • treating cancer patients with cytotoxic chemotherapy, hormones and other biological/molecular targeted agents (not surgery or radiotherapy)
  • supporting the acute oncology required in hospital settings to ensure the appropriate and timely management of complications in cancer patients, and supporting and advising clinical colleagues investigating patients with symptoms suggestive of an undiagnosed malignancy
  • having a central role in the instigation, conduct and integration of clinical trials in cancer care nationally. 

Medical oncologists need to ensure that they involve patients in treatment decisions so they require excellent communication skills. They are often predominantly based in a district hospital, although all will have cancer centre links (generally spending 1 day a week at a centre). They are an integral part of multidisciplinary teams, have a strong academic background and are trained to understand the biology of cancer and the pharmacology of drugs. 

Unlike clinical oncologists, medical oncologists do not undertake radiation therapy (RT), although they are expected to have a basic knowledge of RT, including its adverse effects and where it is appropriate or preferable to other treatment modalities. Only one or two medical oncology posts nationally treat patients with lymphoma or leukaemia as these conditions are generally managed by haemato-oncologists. 

Most medical oncologists specialise in one to three different tumour sites. Many have combined academic and NHS posts. New posts in medical oncology often have an acute oncology component. An increasing understanding of the risk factors associated with the development of cancers is leading to medical oncologists giving advice and enabling opportunities to improve cancer prevention.

 Further reading