Your Cancer Specialists

Medically Reviewed by Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH on July 20, 2023
3 min read

Most cancers are complex to treat, so you may need to see several different cancer specialists during your treatment. Treatment often involves the combined care of several cancer specialists at once.

Active surveillance is advised but there are three ways to treat cancer: with medicine (such as chemotherapy, targeted therapy, immunotherapy, and hormone therapy), with radiation, and with surgery. Each treatment may be handled by a different specialist. Not ev,ery person will need all three types of treatments. It depends on your type of cancer and the stage of your cancer. However, here’s a rundown of the cancer specialists you might see:

  • Medical oncologist. This is the cancer specialist you’ll probably see most often. Usually your oncologist will oversee your general care and coordinate treatments with other specialists. Your oncologist will also be in charge of chemotherapy, hormone therapy, targeted therapy and immunotherapy. You’ll likely visit your medical oncologist for long-term, regular checkups.
  • Radiation oncologist. This cancer specialist treats cancer with radiation therapy.
  • Surgical oncologist. This is a surgeon who has special training in treating cancer. Your surgical oncologist may be called in to diagnose cancer with a biopsy. Surgical oncologists also treat cancer by removing tumors or other cancerous tissue.

Depending on your case, you may also need to see other types of doctors for special cancer care. For instance, you may need to see a hematologist, who specializes in treating disorders of the blood, bone marrow, and lymph nodes. Sometimes, surgery might be done by a general surgeon instead of a surgical oncologist. Or you might need to see a plastic surgeon if you need reconstructive surgery after treatment. You might also wish to see a psychiatrist or a psycho-oncologist, a psychiatrist who specializes in the psychological challenges of coping with cancer.

  • Experience. A cancer specialist should have a lot of experience treating the specific type of cancer that you have. Ask how many cases your doctor has treated over their career and over the past year. How many is enough? There’s no easy answer. But you should have the feeling that your doctor is treating people like you on a regular basis.
  • Good training. Those framed degrees on a cancer specialist’s wall aren’t just for decoration, says Terri Ades, DNP, FNP-BC, AOCN, director of cancer information at the American Cancer Society in Atlanta. Look at them closely. Where did your doctor train? Ask if they have other special qualifications or areas of interest. Ask if they have published any relevant journal articles on cancer treatment.
  • Board certification. Board-certified doctors are trained in a specific area of medicine and must pass an exam testing their knowledge and skill. So if your doctor is board-certified -- in medical oncology or surgery, for instance -- you can be confident that they are highly qualified in that field. That said, board certification is not available for every subtype of cancer treatment. So not being board certified is not necessarily a bad sign.
  • Openness to your questions. This is one of the most important things to look for in a cancer specialist. You need to feel like your doctor is listening to you and answering your questions. Also, make sure your doctor will be available to you when you need to talk to them -- even after you leave the office.

Usually, your primary care doctor will refer you to a cancer specialist. Many people rely on recommendations from friends and relatives, or on the reputation of a specific hospital or practice in their area. People also do searches for ratings on line now a days. Your insurance company may also have a specific list of providers that they will work with.

There are other ways to get the names of cancer specialists. You could call your local hospital and ask for the names of cancer specialists who are on staff. You could get the names of cancer specialists through different medical organizations, like the American Medical Association, the American Society of Clinical Oncology, American College of Surgeons, or your local medical society. And you could contact top medical schools or cancer treatment centers in your state for references.