So, what is a medical oncologist? Well, cancers are primarily treated by one of or a combination of surgery, radiation or chemotherapy. A medical oncologist is a specialist physician who directs and manages the course of chemotherapy that can be used to treat a cancer. Chemotherapy is a general term used to describe medicines that have the ability to kill cancer cells. There are over one hundred different cancer chemotherapy drugs that are used in specific combinations and schedules to treat different types of cancers. These are mostly given intravenously (through a vein) but some can also be given orally (by mouth, as a pill).
Many medical oncologists focus on treating certain types of cancer. I specialize in treating cancers of the gastrointestinal (GI) system. This includes cancers of the esophagus, stomach, pancreas, liver and intestines, particularly the large bowel, which consists of the colon and rectum (also called colorectal cancers). I consider myself to be pretty fortunate because I have the opportunity to do different things in my career — research, teaching and looking after my patients.
Among the GI cancers that we treat, colorectal cancers represent the majority. It is the third leading cancer diagnosis in Canadian men and women. There have been major strides in the chemotherapy treatment options for colorectal cancers, and most of them within the last decade. We have gone from having pretty much just one active drug to now having seven different active drugs, including four different chemotherapies and three targeted therapies (also known as biologics). We have participated in many of the studies that have led to the development of these new therapies and, consequently, have helped patients with colorectal cancer live longer and with a better quality of life. In fact, patients in B.C. have some of the best survival rates reported in the world. Seeing progress in research directly impact the lives of our patients is hugely gratifying. While much has been accomplished, we know that much more needs to be done. It’s very rewarding to be a part of that process.