Mesothelioma Specialists vs. Oncologists

Quick Summary

Mesothelioma specialists are typically surgeons or oncologists who have focused a notable part of their career on diagnosing, treating or curing mesothelioma. All mesothelioma specialists are doctors who have completed additional training in their area of specialty and have extensive experience with mesothelioma. Most mesothelioma specialists have been mentored by leading mesothelioma experts, receiving hands-on education and real-world experience under the supervision of existing specialists.

Some current mesothelioma specialists, such as Dr. Robert Cameron and Dr. Paul Sugarbaker, were pioneers in treating mesothelioma. Instead of learning from experts, this first generation of mesothelioma specialist discovered the disease and was the first to research and treat it.

Today’s top mesothelioma specialists continue to research mesothelioma in hopes of finding better treatment options and an eventual cure for the aggressive cancer.

While mesothelioma specialists are usually surgeons or oncologists, there are additional specialties where a person may have expertise in mesothelioma treatment.

Additional mesothelioma treatment specialties include:

  • Anesthesiology
  • Radiology
  • Pathology
  • Pulmonology
  • Nursing

What it Takes to Become a Doctor

All doctors complete a minimum 4 years of undergraduate school, followed by 4 years of medical school. They then enter a 3-4-year residency, obtaining hands-on experience diagnosing and treating an array of medical conditions. After successfully completing their residency, doctors are qualified to practice medicine on their own.

Mesothelioma specialists can complete residencies in surgery or oncology.

Medical Board Certification

The majority of mesothelioma specialists are board-certified in at least one specialty. The American Board of Medical Specialties grants certification, requiring doctors undergo a series of complex evaluations and assessments. Board certification is optional but can help doctors advance their careers by proving their aptitude in a specialty.

Board Certification Update

Mesothelioma specialists are often board-certified in general surgery, cardiothoracic surgery, medical oncology, radiation oncology, or complex general surgical oncology. 

Steps to Becoming a Mesothelioma Specialist

To become a mesothelioma specialist, doctors must follow several steps to get to this world-class level of expertise:

  • Step 1: Complete a minimum 4 years of undergraduate school
  • Step 2: Complete a 4-year medical degree program
  • Step 3: Complete a 3-7 year residency program
  • Step 4: Pass all licensing exams for chosen specialty
  • Step 5: Obtain board certification in specialty area, if desired
  • Step 6: Work alongside other doctors with mesothelioma experience or complete significant research into mesothelioma
  • Step 7: Diagnose and treat numerous mesothelioma patients or make notable scientific research contributions

Difference Between Oncologists, Surgeons and Mesothelioma Specialists

A doctor who wants to specialize in surgery or oncology will complete residency training in their chosen area of expertise. This residency training will cater to the doctor’s chosen specialty and crafts their capabilities and qualifications as a doctor.

Surgeons are required to complete a minimum of 3 years residency to become a general surgeon, but those who work with mesothelioma have additional education.

Surgical Specialist Update

The traditional education pathway for a cardiothoracic surgeon includes 5 years’ training in general surgery, followed by 2 to 3 years devoted to cardiothoracic surgery.

Oncologists have also completed residency training, but their residencies focus on diagnosing and treating various forms of cancer.

There are three types of oncologists who may work with mesothelioma patients:

  • Medical oncologists
  • Radiation oncologists
  • Surgical oncologists

However, the majority of surgeons and oncologists do not have training or expertise in mesothelioma. Due to the rarity of the disease, even these highly qualified doctors are often unfamiliar with the cancer and unequipped to diagnose or treat it.

Oncological Mesothelioma Specialists

There are 5 subspecialties for oncology, 3 of which can specialize in mesothelioma:

  1. Medical Oncologists: Medical oncologists diagnose and administer chemotherapy and pharmaceutical treatments for cancer. Medical oncology is by far the most common type of medical oncologist, with approximately 14,500 medical oncologists employed in the United States.
  2. Radiation Oncologists: The second most common type of oncologist, a radiation oncologist’s job is to develop and apply radiation treatments to cancer patients. Mesothelioma patients most commonly receive intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT) in which high energy radiation beams are applied directly to a tumor.
  3. Surgical Oncologists: Surgical oncologists are the rarest form of oncologist in the United States, with less than 1000 people employed in this field nationwide. Surgical oncologists are both cancer experts and surgeons but, like other surgeons and oncologists, may not specialize in mesothelioma. Those that do specialize in mesothelioma will perform surgical procedures that may include extrapleural pneumonectomy, pleurectomy/decortication, and heated chemotherapy (also called HIPEC).

Surgical Mesothelioma Specialists

In addition to surgical oncologists, there are a couple of other specialty surgeons that may work with mesothelioma. While these surgical subtypes are not required to become a mesothelioma expert, it is often a surgeon’s work within these fields that leads them to mesothelioma in the first place.

  1. Thoracic/Cardiothoracic Surgery: The majority of surgical mesothelioma specialists have a background in cardiothoracic surgery. The current board-certification for this subtype combines cardiac and thoracic surgery, although many surgeons end up following a cardiac or thoracic track throughout their career. Mesothelioma surgeons who focus on pleural or peritoneal mesothelioma are likely to be adept thoracic surgeons, while those who can help with pericardial mesothelioma are proficient cardiac surgeons.
  2. General Surgery: Because board-certification is optional, some surgeons choose to only complete a general surgery specialty before obtaining expertise in mesothelioma through mentorship and other alternative forms of education. General surgeons who specialize in mesothelioma tend to have significant hands-on experience with the cancer.

A Multidisciplinary Approach to Mesothelioma

Mesothelioma is an aggressive and unusual cancer, and treatment often requires expertise from numerous specialties. It’s common for mesothelioma specialists to work together to diagnose and treat patients, ensuring each case is reviewed from several viewpoints. Mesothelioma often requires a trimodal approach that combines surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.

It’s fairly routine for a mesothelioma patient to work with a medical oncologist, radiation oncologist and surgeon throughout their treatment.

Hospitals with designated mesothelioma programs will often have additional medical professionals who specialize in treating mesothelioma, including:

  • Pulmonologists or respiratory doctors
  • Anesthesiologists
  • Radiologists
  • Pathologists
  • Specialized nurses
  • Medical assistants

Each of these individuals brings a different perspective to patient care and help provide the best treatment possible for people with mesothelioma.

While many professionals may be involved, a single mesothelioma specialist typically takes the lead and acts as the patient’s point of contact. They share the conclusions of their peers and help answer any questions.

Choosing a Mesothelioma Specialist

Mesothelioma specialists come from a wide variety of backgrounds, but they all have one thing in common—a remarkable understanding of mesothelioma and substantial experience working with the disease.

Patients diagnosed with mesothelioma should find a specialist who can take the lead on their case and help them understand their disease. Specialists will assist throughout the decision-making process and consult with experts from other specialties as needed. They work with their multidisciplinary teams to develop comprehensive treatment plans for each individual patient.

People who are diagnosed with mesothelioma should seek the advice of a mesothelioma specialist as their first step towards treatment. Contact our Patient Advocates today to get started with our free Doctor Match Program.

View Author and Sources

  1. American Board of Medical Specialties. “Steps Toward Initial Certification and MOC.” Retrieved from Accessed on December 10th, 2017.
  2. Statista. “Number of U.S. physicians in oncology specialties in 2016.” Retrieved from Accessed on December 10th, 2017.

Last modified: September 1, 2018