What is a medical oncologist and what do they do?

By HealthEngine

Last updated: 15 January 2018

What is a medical oncologist?

A medical oncologist is a doctor who manages patients with cancer. They coordinate all chemotherapy required and often direct a multidisciplinary team involved in the care of cancer patients.

What medical conditions do oncologists treat?

  • Cancer of all types

Cancer is a disease that can occur in many different parts of the body. Cancers originating in different parts behave differently and respond differently to treatment.

Whilst most oncologists have a broad range of expertise many specialise further into the management of cancer from a particular area, for example breast, lung or bone cancers.

What to expect at your first appointment with a medical oncologist


Cancers present in many different ways and are diagnosed by doctors from many different areas of specialty. Patients often present with weight loss or pain, or a new lump or bump.

Doctors will order tests to investigate these signs and symptoms. These tests would usually include blood testsX-Raysespecially of the chest, often a CT scan and then a biopsy.

A biopsy is where a specimen of the tumour is taken, either at surgery or with a needle, and is sent for analysis. A doctor called a pathologist will examine the specimen.

The micropscopic and biochemical features of the tissue will be characteristic to the type of cancer and the diagnosis will be made.


Treatment of cancers is vary varied. It usually involves a multidisciplinary team of doctors of many different specialties, as well as nurses, social workers, psychologists, occupational therapists, physiotherapists and others.

Before spread occurs treatment is often surgical. If a tumour can be removed entirely this is usually the best chance for cure. Examples of cancers where this is done include breast, bowel, skin and lung cancer.

If a tumour has spread or is in a position where surgical removal is not possible the cancer may respond to chemotherapy.

This involves giving medications that destroy the cancer cells. They are often powerful medications and may have many side effects that will be carefully monitored for and treated by the oncology team.

Another treatment option involves radiation treatment. The cancer is exposed to radiotherapy and the radiation damages the cancer cells. This treatment is coordinatd by a radiotherapist.

Procedures performed by medical oncologists

  • Chemotherapy

Drugs that destroy cancer cells are called chemotherapeutic agents (chemotherapy). The aim of these agents is to kill the cancer cells but to leave the patient’s cells unharmed.

The side effects of many chemotherapy agents remain unpleasant despite numerous recent advances in the area. Almost all these agents, although targeted at cancer cells, do affect native cells to a certain extent.

Side effects include:

  • Loss of hair
  • Nausea
  • Feeling weak
  • Being prone to infections
  • Many more

Other powerful medications available can counteract some of these side effects.

Associated tests

  • Blood tests – looking for markers of cancer
  • Imaging tests
  • X-Rays
  • CT scans
  • MRI
  • SPECT scans
  • PET scans
  • Bone scans
  • Bone marrow aspirate or biopsy
  • Tissue biopsy

Specialty areas of interest

  • Paediatric oncologists: cancer affecting children
  • Radiation oncologists (radiotherapists): oncologists specialising in use of radiation to treat cancer.
  • Haematologists: Manage cancers that affect the blood and bone marrow.

Training and qualifications



A: Use HealthEngine to find and book your next Medical Oncologist appointment. Click on the following locations to find a Medical Oncologist clinic in your state or territory.


This article is for informational purposes only and should not be taken as medical advice. If in doubt, HealthEngine recommends consulting with a registered health practitioner.

All content and media on the HealthEngine Blog is created and published online for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. Always seek the guidance of your doctor or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding your health or a medical condition. Never disregard the advice of a medical professional, or delay in seeking it because of something you have read on this Website. If you think you may have a medical emergency, call your doctor, go to the nearest hospital emergency department, or call the emergency services immediately.