Radiation oncologists specialize in treating patients suffering from cancer by planning for and carrying out all kinds of radiation therapy - such as chemotherapy or radioimmunotherapy.

Watch an Overview of Radiation Oncology

About Radiation Oncology

Radiation oncology is a specialized field of medicine that utilizes radiation therapy and other techniques to treat patients suffering from a variety of different cancers. Radiation oncologists are highly trained physicians who provide care as part of a multidisciplinary approach, working alongside a team of physicians that may include physical therapists, psychiatrists, internists, surgical oncologists and pain management physicians, among others. Radiation oncologists work to enhance the quality of life in patients suffering from cancer, either to cure the disease or to mitigate symptoms when the disease is incurable.

Radiation oncologists are capable of providing a wide range of treatment modalities; the most common treatment provided in radiation oncology is radiation therapy. The type of radiation therapy utilized by an oncologist depends upon the type and location of the cancer, as certain cancers will respond differently to the various forms of radiation therapy. The manner in which a cancer responds to radiation is directly correlated to its radiosensitivity. Generally, the higher a cancer’s radiosensitivity, the smaller the dose of radiation. For example, leukemias are deemed to be highly radiosensitive, while melanomas are at the opposite end of the spectrum, typically deemed as radioresistant (does not respond well to radiation therapy).

Depending upon the patient’s diagnosis, the radiation oncologist will prepare a treatment plan specific to the patient’s needs. The oncologist may introduce radioimmunotherapy (RIT), which sends out radioactivity via antibodies to the affected areas of the body to treat a wide range of cancers. Stereotactic radiosurgery utilizes computerized imaging techniques to help target an extremely narrow X-ray beam, which is said to be accurate to one millimeter or less, to treat patients suffering from brain or other tumors in the head and neck region of the body. Another treatment modality is known as brachytherapy, which is a form of internal radiation therapy. In brachytherapy, radioactive implants are placed within the body to treat diseases such as cervical, head and neck, ovarian and gastrointestinal cancers, among others. Other radiation therapies may be introduced depending upon the patient’s diagnosis and the resources of the radiation oncologist.

Radiation Oncology Education & Training

Radiation oncologists must complete a rigorous and demanding educational path before they are eligible to provide care and receive a medical license. First, radiation oncologists must complete a bachelor’s degree before entering medical school. During medical school, the student will receive training in a wide range of medical disciplines throughout laboratory, classroom and clinical instruction. Following graduation from medical school with an MD or DO degree, the physician must enter into a residency program in the area of radiation oncology.

Radiation oncology residencies typically last four to five years, and allow the physician to hone their skills and knowledge within the specialty. Physicians become acquainted with many areas within the field including clinical oncology, biostatistics, the physics of radiation and the biology of radiation. Residents are introduced to the provision of radiation therapy, usually as part of a multidisciplinary medical team. During the residency, the physician will also have the opportunity to perform medical research in an area of radiation oncology.

After completing residency training, most seek board certification from the American Board of Radiology in radiation oncology. In order to maintain board certification, radiation oncologists must complete Maintenance of Certification requirements every ten years. Like all physicians, radiation oncologists must be issued a medical license from the state(s) in which they provide care.