Oncology is concerned with:
The most important diagnostic tool remains the medical history: the character of the complaints and any specific symptoms (fatigue, weight loss, unexplained anemia, fever of unknown origin, paraneoplastic phenomena and other signs). Often a physical examination will reveal the location of a malignancy.
Diagnostic methods include:
Generally, a “tissue diagnosis” (from a biopsy) is considered essential for the proper identification of cancer. When this is not possible, “empirical therapy” (without an exact diagnosis) may be given, based on the available evidence (e.g. history, x-rays and scans.)
Occasionally, a metastatic lump or pathological lymph node is found (typically in the neck) for which a primary tumor cannot be found. This situation is referred to as “carcinoma of unknown primary”, and again, treatment is empirical based on past experience of the most likely origin.
It completely depends on the nature of the tumor identified what kind of therapeutical intervention will be necessary. Certain disorders will require immediate admission and chemotherapy (such as ALL or AML), while others will be followed up with regular physical examination and blood tests.
Often, surgery is attempted to remove a tumor entirely. This is only feasible when there is some degree of certainty that the tumor can in fact be removed. When it is certain that parts will remain, curative surgery is often impossible, e.g. when there are metastases elsewhere, or when the tumor has invaded a structure that cannot be operated upon without risking the patient’s life. Occasionally surgery can improve survival even if not all tumour tissue has been removed; the procedure is referred to as “debulking” (i.e. reducing the overall amount of tumour tissue). Surgery is also used for the palliative treatment of some of cancers, e.g. to relieve biliary obstruction, or to relieve the problems associated with some cerebral tumors. The risks of surgery must be weighed against the benefits.
Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are used as a first-line radical therapy in a number of malignancies. They are also used for adjuvant therapy, i.e. when the macroscopic tumor has already been completely removed surgically but there is a reasonable statistical risk that it will recur. Chemotherapy and radiotherapy are commonly used for palliation, where disease is clearly incurable: in this situation the aim is to improve the quality of and prolong life.
Hormone manipulation is well established, particularly in the treatment of breast and prostate cancer.
There is currently a rapid expansion in the use of monoclonal antibody treatments, notably for lymphoma(Rituximab), and breast cancer (Trastuzumab).
Vaccine and other immunotherapies are the subject of intensive research.
Approximately 50% of all cancer cases in the Western world can be treated to remission with radical treatment. For pediatric patients, that number is much higher. A large number of cancer patients will die from the disease, and a significant proportion of patients with incurable cancer will die of other causes. There may be ongoing issues with symptom control associated with progressive cancer, and also with the treatment of the disease. These problems may include pain, nausea, anorexia, fatigue, immobility, and depression. Not all issues are strictly physical: personal dignity may be affected. Moral and spiritual issues are also important.
While many of these problems fall within the remit of the oncologist, palliative care has matured into a separate, closely allied speciality to address the problems associated with advanced disease. Palliative care is an essential part of the multidisciplinary cancer care team. Palliative care services may be less hospital-based than oncology, with nurses and doctors who are able to visit the patient at home .
There are a number of recurring ethical questions and dilemmas in oncological practice. These include:
There are several sub-specialties within oncology. Moreover, oncologists often develop an interest and expertise in the management of particular types of cancer.
Oncologists may be divided on the basis of the type of treatment provided.
In most countries it is now common that patients are treated by a multidisciplinary team. These teams will meet on regular basis and discuss the patients under their care. These teams consist of the medical oncologist, a clinical oncologist or radiotherapist, a surgeon (sometimes there is a second reconstructive surgeon), a radiologist, a pathologist, an organ specific specialist such as a gynecologist or dermatologist, and sometimes the general practitioner is also involved. These disease oriented teams are sometimes in conflict with the general organisation and operation in hospitals. Historically hospitals are organised in an organ or technique specific manner. Multidisciplinary teams operate over these borders and it is sometimes difficult to define who is in charge.
In veterinary medicine, veterinary oncology is the sub-specialty that deals with cancer diagnosis and treatment in animals.