I’m a medical oncologist. There are several different types of oncologists. There are radiation oncologists who deliver the radiotherapy in the end of cancer care and medical oncologists oversee the overall care of the cancer patient and run the drug end of cancer care.
What does you work entail?
It entails primarily seeing patients in the office and seeing patients in the hospital. We also do hematology because most oncology fellowships are combined with hematology, which is the study of cancers of the blood and benign conditions of the blood. The oncology part of it is the cancer part.
We do consultations in the hospital and we run an outpatient cancer center where we give the drug cancer care. We primarily give chemotherapy but it can also be hormonal therapy. There are other types of drug treatments that we use for cancer as well.
What’s a typical workweek look like for you?
We work very hard like most physicians. We probably work at least from 8 to 5 and we’re on call at night and we’re on call on weekends. I have a partner now so we switch weekends off but I would say your average medical oncologist probably works at least every other weekend and 5 days a week so there are a lot of work hours there.
I wouldn’t recommend going into this career if you’re doing it just to make money…You need to follow whatever your passion is, otherwise you’ll be miserable…If you’re doing something just to make these little rectangular, green pieces of paper you’re never going to be happy.
How did you get started in this career?
Well you have to go through medical school and get either an M.D. or a D.O. in order to go into either medical oncology or hematology/oncology. You have to be board certified in internal medicine so you have to do an internal medicine fellowship and then after that you have to do the hematology/oncology fellowship. It’s 4 years of medical school and there’s 3 years of internal medicine and then another 3 years after that. So it’s 6 years of training after medical school.
The reason I chose oncology/hematology is because it’s more my personality type. There’s certain personality types that gravitate towards orthopedics or certain personality types that gravitate towards general surgery. We deal with a lot of end-of-life care and end-of-life issues and there are some people who just can’t deal with those kinds of issues at all. It depends on their personality type. I think it ends up being someone who can deal with uncertainty better whereas the surgical type people I think have a difficult time dealing with uncertainty. Either something is black or white. There’s no shade of grey whereas people in our field end-of-life issues are all shades of grey.
You do a lot of hand holding and a lot of compassionate type care and issues and I just think certain personality types gravitate that way.
What do you like about what you do?
I think what I like most is what I just mentioned. It’s such an honor to be involved in patient’s care when it’s end-of-life because that’s a very personal, very sacred kind of thing. And you develop strong relationships that way with your patients which is one of the things that makes the job hard as well.
There is another part of medical oncology that is so exciting now too, and it really fits people’s personalities that are into research too.
There are people that do this but don’t do patient care at all, they do just research. There’s a huge amount of research in the molecular biology and new drug field. In the last 10 years that we’ve had so many new drugs and so many new ways to treat this. Many cancers used to be 100% fatal and some of them are now being rapidly cured. There are all sorts of new things coming down the pike and that’s another exciting part of Oncology.
What do you dislike about the job?
I think probably what most people dislike about all of the medicine jobs now is just the amount of government intervention. And that’s just going to get worse and worse over the next several years. We used to be much more autonomous and it’s just hard now dealing with both insurance companies and governments. So dealing with the paperwork and government red tape is probably the worst part of the job.
How do you make money or how are you compensated as an oncologist?
I’m fee for service. I’m in private practice. Certainly there are hematology/oncology people that are employed by other organizations, but I’m fee for service.
How much money do you make as a hematologist/oncologist?
The median salary for medical oncologists in my region(Southeast) is right around $400,000 a year if you just take a median salary.
Certain regions of the country might be slightly higher than that.
How much money do you make starting out as an oncologist?
The starting salary for most oncologists is probably somewhere in the $300,000 range now.
What education or skills are needed to be a hematologist/oncologist?
Well like I said you have to have a college degree and then you have to be accepted to a medical school or a D.O. school and then you have to do another 3 year internal medicine fellowship and then you have to do a 3 year Hematology/Oncology fellowship so it’s a very big commitment of 10 years after college.
The hope would be that we’ll find treatments that work for a lot more of these diseases that we don’t have much in the way of treatment for. Many cancers used to be 100% fatal and some of them are now being rapidly cured.
What would you say is most challenging about what you do?
I really think the most challenging thing now is just all of the bureaucratic paperwork that we have to fill out. I probably spend 3 hours a day just signing forms. You know several years ago it wasn’t anything like that. It’s going to get nothing but worse with our current government situation. But the patient care part of is still great and that’s still the reason we all do it..
What would you say is the most rewarding about what you do?
I think when you get a card from a patient or family saying how much they appreciated your care. That’s very rewarding.
What advice would you offer someone considering this career?
I think you’ve just got to do it for the right reasons. I wouldn’t recommend going into this career if you’re doing it just to make money but of course that’s good advice no matter what you decide to get into to.
You need to follow whatever your passion is, otherwise you’ll be miserable the rest of your. If you’re doing something just to make these little rectangular, green pieces of paper you’re never going to be happy.
How much time off do you get or do you take?
I take about 10 weeks off a year. I take about 8 actual weeks of vacation and then two weeks of continuing education and medical meetings.
What is a common misconception people have about what you do?
I think the misconception that people have about all physicians is that money just rolls in and that we don’t work that hard. That’s a big misconception, we all work very hard. We all make good money but we all work very hard. So I think that’s probably the biggest misconception.
What are your goals and dreams for the future in this career?
The hope would be that we’ll find treatments that work for a lot more of these diseases that we don’t have much in the way of treatment for.
For example, there’s a new drug that came out a few years ago that treats CML which stands for Chronic Myeloid Leukemia. That disease used to be a disease that was 100% fatal in everybody within 2 years and now it’s 100% curable just by taking this capsule. So there are a lot of cancers that we don’t have something like that for right now our goal would be there will be more of those treatments coming down the pike.
What else would you like people to know about what you do?
You have to be committed to going to school for a long time. A lot of it is about delayed gratification. Going into the medical career you really have to be willing to go the long haul and realize that it’s going to take a while.