If you or someone you love has received a referral to an oncologist, or if you're considering requesting a referral to check out a suspicious symptom, it's important to learn as much as possible about the oncology specialization.

Your doctor will send you to a specialist when they can't determine a diagnosis on their own and want to seek the opinion of an expert in a particular field to narrow down the possibilities to provide the best care possible.

The first thing to realize is that a referral to an oncologist does not mean you have a definitive diagnosis of cancer or any other disease. Some people are just prone to developing benign bumps or growths. Lymph nodes can swell up for many reasons. Moreover, if it is some form of cancer, realize that many forms of cancer are very treatable, especially when discovered early and treated by a highly trained oncologist.

When patients are highly informed and willing to work with their medical team to ensure accurate diagnosis and explore multiple treatment options, the higher level of care that the oncology specialists can provide.

What is an Oncologist?

Oncologists seek to study and treat the many types of cancer. Once a diagnosis has been made, an oncologist will oversee a patient’s case and monitor the course of treatment. Oncologists often work with a team of healthcare professionals to meet a patient’s needs.

There are three main subcategories within the field that define how oncologists conduct their practice:

  • Radiation oncologists use radiation therapy to treat some forms of cancer. The goal of radiation therapy is to slow the growth of tumors without hurting healthy tissue in the process.
  • Surgical oncologists work to physically treat and remove tumors through “surgical” means, which often involves removing tissue to look for the presence of cancer cells, which is called a biopsy.
  • Medical oncologists use targeted therapy or chemotherapy to treat cancer. While chemotherapy is meant to destroy cancer cells, targeted therapy focuses on limiting their spread into other areas of the body.

Reasons to See an Oncologist

Your referral to an oncologist can stem from any number of circumstances. For instance, if you’re receiving a medical procedure of any kind, the attending physician might notice a tumor or growth that needs a second look. Since most offices aren’t equipped to diagnose a tumor as cancerous, you may be referred to an oncologist instead. People are often referred to an oncologist when:

  • A growth is found that needs to be diagnosed as either benign, which means it’s non-cancerous, or malignant, which means it’s cancerous.
  • A cancerous tumor needs to be removed.
  • A patient is in need of chemotherapy to prevent the spread of cancer or eliminate it entirely.

Oncologist Qualifications

Since oncologists are licensed physicians, they’re required to graduate medical school to earn a degree as a Doctor of Medicine (M.D.) or Doctor of Osteopathy (D.O.). Prospective oncologists are further required to take part in multi-year residency programs to learn about the oncology specialization. Oncologists need to be licensed by the state they work, and these certifications can be found online if you search for your state.

Finding an Oncologist

You might understandably have a lot of questions after learning that you’re being referred to an oncologist. Remember, oncologists are specially trained to help their patients preserve their quality of life. If you want to learn more about the oncologist that your doctor has referred you to; if you have concerns about whether your oncologist is qualified to help you, or you just want to seek a second opinion, learn more about how to research specialist doctors to seek the best level of care possible.

Your primary care doctor is likely to refer you to an oncologist they know who is in-network and will work with your primary care facility to stay in communication about your overall health care process. But make sure you talk to your doctor about what your needs are and ask any questions you may have about selecting a specialist who will be right for you.

Questions to Ask Your Oncologist

There’s no such thing as a bad question when it comes to dealing with your health. That said, your oncologist may be in high demand, and the doctor's schedule may naturally limit the amount of time you have to talk things through.

Make the most of your appointment by thinking of important questions to ask. Examples of questions include:

  • When do you usually return phone calls? Communication between you and your oncologist will be an important part of your treatment. You should know in advance when you can expect to talk to your specialist.
  • How will the diagnosis process work? Find out as much as you can about your doctor's plan for determining your condition.
  • Do I need a second opinion? It's not about asking for permission; a second opinion is probably a good idea regardless of the answer. But an honest oncologist will encourage you to seek out the opinion of another specialist in the field.

If you have received a diagnosis already, you may want to ask:

  • What are the different options for treatment? Make sure to talk with your doctor about multiple possibilities and what they recommend. You may consider seeking a second opinion about treatment courses if the specialist doesn't offer any alternatives and you're unsure of how to proceed.
  • When will I be able to return to work? The outcomes of cancer can vary. Your oncologist won’t be able to predict your outcome, but they might be able to answer concrete questions such as this.

CareDash maintains an extensive database of oncologists and other medical professionals. Start your search today to find the best oncologist for you.