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Medical Oncology

What is Medical Oncology?

Medical Oncology is a subspecialty of Internal Medicine that focuses on the use of medications (both oral and intravenous) to treat cancers.  These medications are called chemotherapy.  While surgery and radiation treat cancers at particular sites, chemotherapy treats cancers throughout the entire body (even tumors that are often too small to see on CT and PET scans).  Chemotherapy can be used for patients with early and late stage cancers.  For patients undergoing surgery, it can be used to shrink tumors before surgery to allow a less invasive procedure and to improve outcomes (neoadjuvant treatment), or it can be given after surgery to prevent recurrence (adjuvant treatment).  For patients with metastatic disease (cancer that has already spread to different parts of the body), chemotherapy is typically the most effective treatment.

Chemotherapy options for cancer patients have improved dramatically in the past decade.  We now have medications that target specific markers on a particular cancer, which results in less side effects.  These “targeted therapies” include hormone pills, antibodies, and other forms of immunotherapy.  We also have vaccines that can help the patient’s immune system fight off cancer.

In addition to having expertise with various medications to treat cancer, a medical oncologist is also trained to manage the side effects of chemotherapy, as well as conditions that arise due to the cancer itself.  These include gastrointestinal symptoms (nausea/vomiting, diarrhea, constipation), weight loss, fatigue, anemia (and other low blood counts), blood clots and opportunistic infections.  They also have training in bone health (to prevent bone density loss and fractures).

Medical Oncologists are Internal Medicine physicians who have undergone subspecialty training.  At a minimum, they must have completed internal medicine internship/residency (3-years) and specialty fellowship training in hematology and/or medical oncology (3 years for both). 

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