It takes compassion, desire and commitment to become a pediatric oncologist, since the path to this pediatric subspecialty, which is focused on treating children with cancer, is long and difficult. You will need to commit to about 14 years of study, beginning with undergraduate college work, to become a specialist in this area. After college and medical school, a doctor continues to pursue this career with a residency and fellowship in pediatrics and then pediatric oncology, prior to becoming board certified.
High school students who are interested in pediatric oncology can begin working toward this goal by studying hard in math and science. If it’s possible to take calculus and trigonometry and to study biology and chemistry, these are excellent preparation. Students should be prepared to major in pre-med or in a science like biology, chemistry, microbiology, or biochemistry. An undergraduate degree in college should include all studies necessary to pass the Medical College Admission Test® (MCAT®), which in many regions is one of the main criteria for admission to medical school.
It should be noted that some regions construct their medical school and undergraduate studies differently. In the UK, for example, medical school and undergraduate studies are combined into a single program. In places like the US and Canada, people complete a bachelor’s degree first before being admitted to medical school.
Once in medical school, you may learn more about the different specialties available to you. While studies in medical school will be more general in scope, it’s not a bad idea to keep learning more about the field of oncology. Most students complete an internship year, and it’s during this time that they need to decide whether they want to specialize. If you do want to become a pediatric oncologist, you will apply to pediatric residencies, which take about three years to complete.
Once you have completed a pediatric residency and become a board certified pediatrician, the next step is to gain admission to a fellowship program that trains in pediatric oncology. You'll need strong recommendations from instructors in the pediatric program to compete for fellowships. Fellowships in pediatric oncology may take three or four years, depending on program. After completion, you'll be required to take exams and get board certification to practice as a pediatric oncologist.
There are specialties that some doctors avoid because they have unfortunately high patient mortality rates, and oncology is one of these. Emotional resiliency and empathy are of extraordinary use in this field, but the work can be challenging, and no doctor wants to preside over cases where children do not make it. At the same time, this specialty changes constantly, and many doctors look to it with optimism and hope that future treatment will bring cure to every child with cancer. Some pediatric oncologists both treat patients and perform research that may one day accomplish this goal.