By Dr Joanna Woodnutt MRCVS
Whether you’re a GCSE student, vet student, or GP vet, you might be considering the next stage of your career. Veterinary oncology is a difficult career path, and it can take a long time to become a specialist. Sign up with The Vet Service today and learn more about your options. We offer a number of possibilities, including graduate vet jobs, if you are not yet at specialist level. Day-to-day life as a specialist oncologist can be hard too. However, it’s extremely rewarding and not only will you be helping pets, you might even be developing techniques that have implications for human medicine. We spoke to Dr Andy Yale BVMedSci (Hons) BVM BVS (Hons) PGDipVCP MVetMed Dip-ECVIM-CA (Oncology) MRCVS, an oncologist working and teaching at the Royal Veterinary College, UK, to find out more about becoming a veterinary oncologist.
What do veterinary oncologists do?
Veterinary oncology is a specialist branch of veterinary medicine that deals specifically with animal cancer. Veterinary oncologists spend their days working with pets with cancer and their owners. They will diagnose the type of cancer a pet has, decide on the best treatment, and support the owner and the pet while the treatment is happening. Some specialist veterinary oncologists work in research positions or in universities teaching students.
Dr Andy Yale works in the oncology service of the Queen Mother Hospital for Animals. “We see dogs and cats with a suspicion of cancer, and undertake further investigations to obtain a diagnosis. We also see patients with a prior cancer diagnosis in order to further stage their disease and devise appropriate treatment plans. A lot of our patients also require regular chemotherapy, so there are a variety of appointment types over the course of the week.” He also spends some of his time supervising residents, lecturing veterinary students at the Royal Veterinary College, and undertaking research.
Would you make a good veterinary oncologist?
If you’re already a vet, you might know that oncology is your calling. If that’s you, skip to the next section. But if you’re not sure, or you’re a veterinary student exploring different vet specialist jobs, first it would be a good idea to explore whether you’d make a good oncologist.
Vet oncology specialists need to be medically-minded, so this probably isn’t the route for you if you enjoy surgery. (If operating on dogs and cats with cancer is more your thing, you’ll want to become a specialist surgeon instead, and do a fellowship in surgical oncology afterwards – you’ll still work closely with the oncologists, but they’ll do the work-up and manage the patient before and after the operation!)
You’ll also need to be a flexible thinker – confident with thinking outside of the box rather than following a set treatment plan. Dr Yale explains: “Even amongst common cancers, the presenting signs and individual complexities of each case means that there is no ‘fixed’ treatment plan for a particular cancer – each patient needs an individualised approach.”
A cancer diagnosis can be extremely hard to hear, and clients will often have a lot of questions, so you’ll need to have excellent communication skills and enjoy spending time with clients. You’ll need to help them deal with their preconceptions and guide them towards choosing a treatment plan, whilst understanding that human and animal cancer care are very different. Dr Yale adds that “discussing prognosis can also be challenging, especially when it is poor, and this requires a high level of communication and empathy.”
Lastly, a genuine interest in the science of oncology is key, as you’ll have to do a lot of studying to get to the top. According to Dr Yale, tumour biology is the “focus of most new research and opportunities for novel treatment development”, so finding this topic exciting and interesting is important to allow you to progress.
How do I become a veterinary oncologist?
If you are not yet a vet, the first step to becoming a veterinary oncologist is to become a vet. Our blogs on the education needed to become a vet and the vet school interview should help with that bit! Once you graduate vet school, you’ll be able to start thinking about these next steps:
One option for working with pets with cancer is to get a certificate in oncology. In the UK, the RCVS offers a ‘Certificate in Advanced Veterinary Practice’ (CertAVP), which is designed for vets working in practice who have an interest in a particular area. The course is usually completed part-time and mostly remotely, alongside your day job, taking a couple of years.
When you’re choosing your modules for your certificate, you can choose oncology modules, which affords you the CertAVP (Oncology). With this qualification, you are likely to continue working in general practice seeing a number of patients, some of whom won’t have cancer. But your status as a CertAVP (Onc) means that you might see a greater number of pets with cancer than normal, as your colleagues locally may refer their patients to you. Dr Yale says the course gives you “a good level of oncology knowledge across a range of topics” but that, since you’ll still be working in a normal veterinary practice, you might find that the “limited access to advanced imaging and […] high level of surgical experience” might limit what you can do, meaning you may still need to send some patients to a referral centre.
If you’re more interested in working with cat and dog cancer patients all day, without being in general practice, you’ll instead want to become a specialist. This means getting a diploma from either the European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ECVIM) or American College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ACVIM). You can only get a diploma after many years of high-level study and passing your board exams.
The first step in becoming a board-certified veterinary oncologist is to do a rotating internship at a specialist hospital. These are usually one year in length. You’ll do several different types of medicine, so your time won’t be dedicated just to cancer patients. You may also want to do an internship as an oncologist, which is another year, but this is not strictly necessary. At the end of this, you need to apply for a residency in oncology. According to Dr Yale, “the residency itself is three years in length and it involves working full-time in the oncology service of a referral hospital”. Once the residency is complete, you can apply to sit your board exams – but only after you’ve ticked a number of other boxes, including having “published 2 peer-reviewed research papers, presented at a number of national/international conferences, and completed a large case log”.
So that’s a minimum of four years further study after graduating veterinary school. After passing your exams, though, you’ll hold the highest qualification on veterinary oncology there is and be a recognised specialist.
Veterinary oncology means working with cancer patients all day – it’s both difficult and rewarding. If this sounds like your dream job, you’ll need to decide whether to complete a CertAVP and work in standard practice, or whether you want to work at specialist level in a large referral hospital. This can take several years of intense study and hard work day-to-day.
Special thanks to Dr Andy Yale BVMedSci (Hons) BVM BVS (Hons) PGDipVCP MVetMed Dip-ECVIM-CA (Oncology) MRCVS for his help with writing this article.
To find a specialist veterinary job suitable for you check out our blog “What Veterinary Specialist Jobs are Available?” to discover your endless options.
If you want to explore new destinations The Vet Service have diverse range of roles available worldwide: Vet Jobs in The USA, Vet Jobs in Australia, Vet Jobs in New Zealand, Vet Jobs in Canada and further international vet jobs.