‘Intrigued by cancers, I became a specialist in veterinary oncology’

James Elliott, veterinary radiation oncologist

Immediately after graduation, I joined Tyldesley Veterinary Centre in Manchester. It was a small, growing practice – busy enough to offer masses of clinical experience, without being too stressful. 

I was well supported and learnt a lot from the other vets and the nurses there. It was a perfect start for a new graduate.

I didn’t have a career plan, other than wanting to get as much experience as I could, and I knew from university that I mostly enjoyed internal medicine. 

Oncology was merely taught as a subsection of internal medicine when I was at vet school, so specialising in oncology had never occurred to me. I remember commenting to a colleague in my first job that I was amazed how many animals we saw with lumps, bumps and cancers. 

I found the subject intriguing and I remember getting a lot of satisfaction from treating a patient with chemotherapy for a mast cell tumour and lymphoma, but I felt out of my depth. I enrolled on an oncology CPD day at the University of Liverpool and spoke to the lecturer Laura Blackwood during
the lunch break. 

A few weeks later I was contacted by a vet school friend who was undertaking a rotating internship at Liverpool. She told me Laura was looking for an intern and had remembered my interest. I made contact and ended up gaining the position, which luckily rapidly led to a residency. I knew immediately that oncology was the right specialism for me and I have never looked back.

What does your job involve? 

My job mainly involves seeing patients referred from general practice (or specialist centres that don’t have an oncologist) for further diagnostics and/or treatment. A smaller part involves teaching interns and residents, and clinical research.

'I knew oncology was the right specialism for me and I have never looked back'

Typical working day

A typical working day involves consultations, discussing prognosis and treatment options with owners and advice calls to vets. 

Patients undergoing daily radiation therapy need regular examinations and new radiation cases may need positioning for treatment or evaluation of images taken to check patient positioning for treatment. 

A large portion of radiation oncology work involves planning the treatment on a computer. This can be very time-consuming as the tumour to be treated and all the surrounding normal tissues need to be drawn using computer software before a treatment plan can be generated. This takes hours of detailed work per case. 

There is also a lot of administrative work involved – emails, letters to referring vets and calls to owners regarding ongoing treatment. Some days also include journal clubs, where we meet as a group to discuss new research findings and keep ourselves up to date.

What I love about my job is the opportunity to meet many different people, but the best feeling is when a patient does much better than you think they will.

What are the challenges?

It is difficult to manage time effectively, as it can be so busy. It can also be difficult to manage clients’ expectations regarding their pet’s prognosis. 

Having said that, the longer you have been practising, the better you become at reading people and animals. I feel that I have become better at communication and amenable to doing it more effectively. Of course, your knowledge base improves with age!

Who inspired you?

Laura Blackwood and oncologist Iain Grant who was a clinician-teacher when I was at Liverpool vet school. He was kind, dedicated and willing to give up his time. He was so passionate about oncology it was difficult not to get involved. We are still great friends.

'The best thing about my job is when an animal does much better than you think it will'

What are your career aspirations?

I always wanted to practise both medical and radiation oncology; however, when I became a specialist in medical oncology, there were few UK-based veterinary radiation facilities and no formal training structure in Europe. 

After several years working in private practice, I visited North Carolina State University to find out whether I was still seriously interested and was offered a training programme without having to go through the usual formal application process – it was too good an offer to refuse. 

I now want to focus on what I most enjoy, which is seeing cancer patients and helping them if I can. 

The oncology team at Southfields is in the process of installing a TrueBeam radiotherapy system, which is revolutionising radiation oncology in the UK. 

There is also the beginnings of a formal radiation oncology training structure in Europe and I am excited to be involved in developing this further and driving it forward. 

What are your career highlights?

Achieving specialist status and successfully passing diploma examinations is extremely satisfying and probably the real highlights. Not many people understand the extreme stress and sheer volumes of information that need to be learned. Achieving my diplomas meant many months of constant study, including at evenings and weekends – this can really take its toll. My most recent highlight was obtaining the ACVR diploma in radiation oncology. 

How do you achieve work-life balance?

I think I have become good at this over the years. I take regular breaks during the day when time allows, and take vacation time regularly. I do not look at work emails when I am not on clinics and make sure I spend sufficient time relaxing.

I enjoy walking in the countryside, visiting family and friends as much as possible (when we are allowed to now within Covid restrictions) and travel.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Probably to enjoy life more rather than studying so much. While it has paid off and I have achieved my goals, I definitely missed out on some fun times and experiences that some of my friends had. I probably could have balanced my time a little better.

James' CV

  • 2006: Graduated from Liverpool vet school
  • 2006 – 2008: Veterinary surgeon in small animal practice
  • 2008: Oncology intern, University of Liverpool
  • 2008 – 2011: European College of Veterinary Internal Medicine (ECVIM)-approved residency in oncology, Liverpool
  • 2009: Awarded the RCVS certificate in small animal medicine
  • 2011: Awarded the ECVIM diploma (subspecialty of oncology)
  • 2011 – 2013: Lecturer in veterinary oncology, Liverpool
  • 2013 – 2018: Medical oncologist, Willows Veterinary Centre and Referral Service
  • 2018 – 2020: American College of Veterinary Radiology (ACVR) residency in veterinary radiation oncology
  • 2020: Awarded ACVR diploma in veterinary radiation oncology
  • 2020: Joined Southfields Veterinary Specialists

Back to Categories