What is medical oncology? What role does does someone in this field play in your cancer care? How should you prepare to meet with a medical oncologist? These questions — and a few more — are answered below by Christina Alsop, APRN, Renown Institute for Cancer.
Treating cancer is a complex process, but at the center of it is a medical expert who will be your primary healthcare provider: the medical oncologist. Because every cancer, patient and treatment plan is unique, it’s imperative that one specialist keeps track of all of the complex moving parts. Here are insights from Christina Alsop, an advanced nurse practitioner with Renown Institute for Cancer, who explains the role of medical oncology.
What is a medical oncologist and why is this role essential in comprehensive cancer care?
Comprehensive cancer care is our approach and the standard approach at all major medical centers that treat cancer. One of the major qualifications for a comprehensive cancer center is having oncology experts who come together to make patient care the top priority.
The field of oncology has three major areas: medical, surgical and radiation. A medical oncologist often is the main healthcare provider for someone who has cancer. A medical oncologist also gives supportive care and may coordinate treatment given by other specialists. This specialist treats cancer using chemotherapy or other medications, such as targeted therapy and immunotherapy.
Can you explain what medical oncology means to someone facing a cancer diagnosis?
The primary job of a medical oncology specialist is to manage cancer and find the most successful treatment modality individualized to the patient. Most medical oncologists wear many hats; that’s why having an advanced practice registered nurse (APRN) is helpful to managing care. An APRN in oncology can improve outcomes for patients with cancer and their families by increasing healthcare access, improving patients’ quality of life, documenting patient outcomes and increasing the cost effectiveness of care.
During the course of the treatment, a medical oncology doctor and APRN need to correctly diagnose and assess the stage of cancer, recommend and implement a treatment plan and monitor progress. You can expect your APRN and oncologist to do the following:
- Explain your diagnosis, your prognosis and your treatment options to you and your family.
- Look after your cancer but also your needs, including management of your symptoms. Often palliative care is initiated to ease pain and discomfort, and assist patients in having the best quality of life while undergoing treatment.
- Keep up-to-date with the latest treatments and involved in testing them through clinical trials and medical research.
- Help drive conversations about managing your care.
How can a person best prepare for the first appointment with a medical oncologist or APRN?
As with any other first appointment, patients should bring notes on their medical histories — including a timeline of symptoms, surgeries and treatments — and a list of all medications, including over-the-counter pain relievers, vitamins, herbs and supplements. Bringing in the actual medications is also helpful to note dosages. Have copies of scans, X-rays, MRIs, CTs, or other imaging tests that were done, and pathology slides if a biopsy was performed. Take notes, and, if possible, have someone with you who can provide emotional support and also remind you of questions that you might forget to ask.
Sample questions for a medical oncologist:
- What is my diagnosis?
- How soon do I need to start treatment?
- What are my treatment options, what’s involved and how long will each treatment take?
- Tell me about the benefits of the recommended treatment.
- What are its potential risks and side effects?
- Can you give me a prognosis at this time?
- Should I consider participating in a clinical trial?
- How will treatment affect my daily routine? Can I continue to work through treatment?
- Will treatment impact my fertility? If so, is there anything I can do to protect my ability to have children in the future?
- What support resources are available to help me cope with my diagnosis?
- Whom should I call if I have additional questions after I leave the office?