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What is a gynecologic oncologist?

May 27, 2014

This year, nearly 91,000 women will be diagnosed with some form of gynecologic cancer. While it can often be overwhelming deciding where to go and whom to see for treatment, specialized care from a gynecologic oncologist can make all the difference. In fact, studies have shown that many women have higher survival rates when choosing to see a gynecologic oncologist, as opposed to a non-gynecologic specialist, for treatment. So, what does a gynecologic oncologist do and why is it important to be treated by one? Our own Dr. Veronica Schimp explains:

Since 2008, I have led our team of gynecologic oncologists here at the Gynecologic Cancer Center. As a gynecologic oncologist, I specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of all gynecologic cancers. Gynecologic cancer is any type of cancer that affects a woman’s reproductive organs, including ovarian, cervical, uterine, vaginal and vulvar cancers.

To become a board-certified gynecologic oncologist, I first had to complete my residency in general OB/GYN practices. This gave me the foundation I needed to complete a fellowship, which provided me with additional training to subspecialize in women’s cancers. During a fellowship, gynecologic oncologists undergo both clinical and research training. This means that we are taught to treat patients, as well as study gynecologic cancers through research. In addition, we are trained to become experts in understanding disease behaviors, diagnosing women’s cancers and performing surgery, including abdominal surgery, pelvic surgery and pelvic reconstruction.

How is a gynecologic oncologist different from a regular oncologist?

Typically, a cancer treatment team is made up of three specialists. The medical oncologist oversees the cancer patient’s entire treatment process and is also trained to administer chemotherapy. The surgical oncologist, as you might have guessed, performs surgery on the patient, if necessary. And finally, the radiation oncologist performs radiation therapy, which is another method of treatment used to kill cancerous cells. However, gynecologic oncologists are unique in that we are both medical oncologists and surgical oncologists. So, not only are we trained to administer chemotherapy, but we are also skilled in various surgical procedures.

When to See a Gynecologic Oncologist

A patient will typically be referred to a gynecologic oncologist by their regular gynecologist or primary care physician. In some cases, patients will come in for a second opinion on their own after noticing unusual bodily changes, including bloating, pelvic pressure or abnormal vaginal bleeding.

Unfortunately, there is often a delay in seeing a gynecologic oncologist because, for many patients, it takes a while to recognize the symptoms and determine who the right doctor is to see.

Once a patient has been referred to a gynecologic oncologist, the first step is to determine a diagnosis. This can usually be done through imaging technology and a physical exam. However, a gynecologic oncologist may also recommend a biopsy or surgery. After a diagnosis has been determined, a treatment plan is put into place. This may include a combination of chemotherapy, radiation therapy and surgery, depending on the patient’s unique diagnosis.

Our Approach to Gynecologic Care

At our Gynecologic Cancer Center, we take a team approach when it comes to caring for our patients. This means that a team of eight or nine doctors comes together to evaluate a patient’s tumor, determine a diagnosis and choose the best course of treatment. This team is usually made up of gynecologic oncologists, radiation oncologists, radiologists, the clinical trials team and pathologists, who evaluate and interpret test results. Working together on each patient’s case is important because it ensures that we are developing the best treatment plan possible.

Additionally, our gynecologic oncologists work to coordinate all of the care our patients receive during their treatment. This includes the emotional and wellness parts of the cancer treatment journey too. We consult with our patients about diet and exercise, risk factors, healthy living and familial risk. Our team is also actively involved in the survivorship process, which includes counseling on smoking cessation, weight management and preventative care. It is important to us to make sure that we are supporting our patients in every aspect of their treatment from start to finish.

If you are experiencing any unusual symptoms, such as pelvic pain, persistent bloating, changes in bathroom habits or abnormal vaginal bleeding, it is important to see your doctor, who may then refer you to a gynecologic oncologist. Early detection is crucial when it comes to treating gynecologic cancer. Our team at the Gynecologic Cancer Center is here to provide compassionate care when you or your loved ones need it most.