Neuro-oncology is a “hybrid” medical subspecialty in which physicians must be experts not only in neurology, the study of the nervous system, but also oncology, the study and treatment of tumors.
“Neuro-oncologists are a group of medical doctors who specialize in the treatment of brain and spine tumors, whether they originated in the brain or spinal cord, the nerves that serve them, or they’re secondarily transferred from systemic tumors,” says Erin Dunbar, M.D., a neuro-oncologist at Piedmont Brain Tumor Center.
The specialty itself can be born out of either medical oncology or neurology, and then the physician must complete a dedicated neuro-oncology fellowship to specialize. Neuro-oncologists oversee a patient’s treatment plan, including treatments with other specialists, such as surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
How neuro-oncologists are involved in treatment
Neuro-oncologists treat a patient’s brain or spine tumor and work to minimize the symptoms that occur with such a diagnosis.
“I most commonly see the patient after they have been just diagnosed with a brain or spine tumor,” says Dr. Dunbar. “That is truly a terrifying moment for everybody.
“My goal as an oncologist is to see the patient as soon as they’re diagnosed and coordinate an individualized plan with the other specialists to tailor the plan specifically to their tumor, its presentations and their symptoms,” she says.
How tumors are treated
Dr. Dunbar divides treatment concepts into two categories:
“What makes brain tumors difficult is that the symptoms are very generalized and can represent other diseases, so oftentimes it takes a collective set of symptoms to have occurred before finally there’s enough puzzle pieces to put together to know it is a neuro-oncologic tumor,” she explains. The blood-brain barrier also makes treatment a challenging process.
“This is a protective feature that keeps toxins, chemicals and other things out of the brain and spine,” explains Dr. Dunbar. “That limits our ability to see the tumor and makes understanding what impact we’ve made with treatment even harder.”
“Hearing that you have a brain tumor or may have a brain tumor is one of the scariest moments for any of us humans,” she says. “My goal as a neuro-oncologist is to explain to the patient and their family what we know as soon as we know it. We work together as a team, flanked by many specialists, in crafting an individualized care plan.”
Learn more about the Brain Tumor Center at Piedmont.