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About radiology and oncology

Here you can find explanations of the various forms of radiology and oncology and what radiologists and oncologists do.

You will also find commonly asked questions, Patients' Liaison Group (PLG) leaflets and internet links to other related organisations.

Clinical radiologists & clinical oncologists
Diagnosing injury and disease
Cancer: early detection saves lives
Combating cancer

Clinical radiologists & clinical oncologists

Clinical radiologists are medical specialists who provide a diagnostic imaging service to patients referred to them by family practitioners and hospital doctors. Patients are referred to clinical radiologists for assistance in both diagnosis and deciding upon the best management of a patient's problems. In appropriate cases, radiologists use minimally invasive methods to treat diseases; for example, diseases of arteries, the liver, and drainage of abscesses and fluid collection. In addition, biopsy of tissues is carried out on a regular basis. These procedures (and others) help to avoid the need for surgical intervention in numerous cases.

Clinical oncologists are medical specialists skilled in non-surgical forms of cancer treatment, using radiotherapy, chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radioactive isotopes and other specialist techniques to treat patients with cancer. In addition to treating those patients who are subsequently cured of their disease, the clinical oncologist is frequently the only physician, together with the family practitioner, to manage the patient through the whole course of his/her cancer.

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Diagnosing injury and disease

Most UK-based Fellows of The Royal College of Radiologists are employed, for at least some of their practice, in NHS hospitals. For simple X-ray examinations, such as a chest X-ray, the radiologist's function is to inspect and interpret the appearances on the film and report the findings to the hospital medical team or referring GP. Nowadays, much of the radiologist's time is occupied in helping to decide upon the best management of patients' problems, and in performing and interpreting complicated procedures.

A radiologist is on-call 24 hours a day to deal with emergency cases, whether it be an elderly person with a suspected brain hemorrhage, a child with symptoms of meningitis or the young victim of a motorcycle accident.

To become a radiologist, Fellows of the College have first to become doctors and then train for a further seven years, learning the necessary skills and knowledge to select the most suitable methods and materials for successful diagnosis and to minimise the risks to patients of the use of imaging equipment.

Interventional radiology is a rapidly expanding branch of radiology. With the help of special instruments and imaging equipment, radiologists are extending this diagnostic role. By making only a small puncture in the skin, complex surgical procedures can be performed within the body. For many patients, these less traumatic techniques replace major surgery and hasten recovery.

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Cancer: early detection saves lives

One in three people develop a cancer at some time in their lives and cures are now increasing with earlier detection. The disease affects men, women and children and can arise in any part of the body. Cancer patients are referred to clinical oncologists by other consultants, such as surgeons, or by GPs. Britain's 320 clinical oncologists are based in one of the UK's 50 large specialist cancer centres. Each has an average list of 2,000 patients under his or her care.

At the first consultation, the clinical oncologist discusses with each patient the nature and severity of their condition and the best options for treatment. He or she will, with the patient's permission, also counsel the patient's immediate family and work closely with the referring specialist and the patient's GP.

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Combating cancer

Radiation therapy involves the use of high-energy X-rays, electrons or other forms of radiation. Under careful guidance, the penetrating X-ray beam is accurately directed in the tumour while the dose to surrounding vital structures is reduced to a minimum.

During the course of treatment, which is often over several weeks, the clinical oncologist monitors the patient's progress and advises on future management and care.

Some types of cancer require the insertion into the tumour of radioactive materials capable of destroying cancers locally. These techniques, known as brachytherapy, are sometimes used in conjunction with external beam irradiation.

Many patients may require anti-cancer drugs or hormone therapy. The clinical oncologist's skill ensures that the patient has the maximum benefit from such treatment with the minimum of side-effects.

Carefully chosen combinations of chemotherapy, radiotherapy and surgery are sometime needed. For a few patients with some types of diseases, total body irradiation followed by bone marrow transplantation is an important technique.

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