What is clinical oncology?


Clinical oncology relates to any type of cancer treatment that is not surgery, including radiotherapy and systemic therapies. 

Most cancer patients have more than one method of treatment, such as surgery to remove a tumour, followed by radiotherapy and/or systemic therapy. The surgery would be completed by a surgical oncologist (or possibly another type of doctor called an interventional oncologist) and the other treatments would be organised and given by a clinical or medical oncologist and their team. Both clinical oncologists and medical oncologists deliver non-surgical cancer treatment, although only clinical oncologists are qualified to deliver radiotherapy. Our Guide to the non-surgical oncology team, produced jointly with the Royal College of Physicians, explains the difference between the two specialties in more detail.

What is radiotherapy?

Radiotherapy uses the radiation energy from machine-generated particles and radioactive materials to precisely target and kill tumours. Radiotherapy typically refers to 'external beam' radiotherapy, where patients are treated with X-rays beamed into the body, most often created by a machine called a linear accelerator (LINAC). A newer type of external beam radiotherapy called proton beam therapy, which uses proton particles instead of X-rays, has also started being used in the UK for patients with very specific cancers. 

What is brachytherapy?

Brachytherapy is a type of internal radiotherapy, where radioactive materials called radioisotopes are inserted inside a patient to kill cancer cells. Examples include using radioiodine to treat thyroid cancer and iridium to treat cervical cancer.  

What are systemic therapies?

Systemic therapies include chemotherapy, which stops cancer cells multiplying; hormone therapy, which limits hormones that can encourage cancer to grow; and immunotherapy, which primes the body’s immune system to fight cancer.