What is a pediatric oncologist?

A pediatric oncologist specializes in research and treatment for cancers that develop in infants, toddlers, children, adolescents and teenagers.

Childhood cancers are different from adult cancers. This is one of the reasons why there is a need for pediatric oncologists who are trained in treating both children and cancer. Many pediatric oncologists also specialize in hematology, which is the study and treatment of diseases related to the blood. These doctors are sometimes referred to as pediatric oncologists/hematologists.

What does a pediatric oncologist/hematologist do?

Typically, a pediatric oncologist/hematologist is a physician who specializes in pediatrics, and then receives advanced training in medical oncology and hematology. A medical oncologist tends to treat a wide range of adult cancers. However, there are fewer cancers found in children, which is why a pediatric oncologist/hematologist may treat more child blood disorders than cancers.

Pediatric oncologists/hematologists examine and diagnose patients, order diagnostic tests and prescribe treatments. Children's bodies respond differently to cancer treatments than adult's bodies. According to the American Cancer Society, childhood cancers tend to respond better to certain treatments, such as chemotherapy. Because of this, a pediatric oncologist will most often use medications and chemotherapy to treat child cancer patients, instead of surgery or radiation therapy, commonly used to treat adults.

What does a pediatric oncologist/hematologist treat?

A pediatric oncologist/hematologist primarily treats cancers and blood disorders that develop in patients under the age of 18. The most common type of childhood cancer is leukemia.

Other forms of childhood cancers include:

  • Brain and spinal cord tumors
  • Neuroblastoma
  • Hodgkin's lymphoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphoma
  • Bone cancers

Pediatric oncologists/hematologists also treat blood disorders that occur in children, such as:

  • Anemia
  • Sickle cell disease
  • Hemophilia

There are many other types of blood disorders that may affect children and teenagers. Some blood disorders, like sickle cell disease, are hereditary.

Many of the blood disorders and malignancies that occur in infants, children and adolescents are uncommon. A pediatric oncologist/hematologist must be highly trained in this discipline and treat patients using a complex understanding of molecular and cellular biology, epidemiology and other research in this field.

How can you see a pediatric oncologist?

Children are usually referred to a pediatric oncologist by a pediatrician or a hematologist. The early signs of cancer in a child are not easy to detect. These symptoms may present as other, more common diseases or health issues that children are likely to have. Because childhood cancers are rare, there are currently no widely-used screening tests to assess children who are not at risk for cancer.

For some of the most common pediatric cancers, the signs and symptoms can vary:

  • Leukemia—in children, symptoms can include bone and joint pain, fatigue, weakness, bleeding, fever and weight loss.
  • Brain tumors—the signs and symptoms for brain tumors are usually the same in children and adults. These can include headaches, dizziness, frequent vomiting and vision, hearing, speech or balance problems.
  • Neuroblastoma—beginning in the adrenal glands, neuroblastoma makes up 7 percent of childhood cancers in the U.S. Neuroblastoma is primarily found in children under five and symptoms include diarrhea, high blood pressure, noticeable changes in the eyes (such as dark circles or droopy eyelids) and pain in different parts of the body.

Parents who are worried about child cancers or blood disorders that occur in children should consult their pediatrician, who will address their concerns or refer them to a pediatric oncologist.

Pediatric oncologists practice at children's hospitals, university medical centers, community hospitals and at pediatric cancer centers, which are designed to treat patients under the age of 18 or 19. Many pediatric cancer centers also serve as research facilities, where patients undergo clinical trials or receive the most recent advancements in care and treatment for cancer.

How is a pediatric oncologist/hematologist different from other doctors?

Many doctors who choose to specialize in pediatric oncology do so because they are passionate and committed to saving children's lives. Pediatric oncology is a difficult, yet rewarding field—physicians who dedicate themselves to treating cancer in children are often highly qualified and experienced.

Pediatric oncologists receive special training for treating children in a clinical setting. In addition to their doctor duties, pediatric oncologists help parents talk with their children about cancer treatment. Being a pediatric oncologist goes far beyond having a good bedside manner. These doctors are active and engaged in every step of the treatment process, striving to provide the best care for each child.

How do you become a pediatric oncologist?

Pediatric oncologists are physicians who have had at least four years of medical school, at least three more years of fellowship training in pediatric hematology/oncology and are certified by the American Board of Pediatrics.

A three-year pediatric hematology-oncology fellowship involves diagnosing and managing children with cancer and hematologic disorders, medical teaching and clinical or lab research. The first year of the fellowship is mainly devoted to patient care, while the final two years are more focused on research.

Pediatric oncologists who provide excellent care for children

Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children is a leader in pediatric oncology, providing infants, toddlers, children and teenagers with the best, most comprehensive treatment and care.

Pediatric oncologists at Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children are highly trained and experts in their field, helping to advance the treatment of childhood cancers and blood disorders that occur in children. Rocky Mountain Hospital for Children serves all patients in the Denver metro area and throughout Colorado.

Talk to your child's doctor about any questions you have about childhood cancers, blood disorders or other health issues that can affect children and teenagers.