Careers in Cancer Research and How to Become a Cancer Researcher

Cancer is a leading cause of death worldwide, accounting for nearly 10 million deaths in 2020. Hence, cancer research is crucial to improve the prevention, detection, and treatment of these cancers, and ensure that survivors live longer better quality lives. Research also helps identify the causes of cancer and is pointing the way to improved methods of diagnosis and treatment. In this post, we will look at the careers in cancer research and how to become a cancer researcher.

Cancer Research

Authored by Dr. Rupak Roy and Tanmoy Ray

What is Cancer?

Cancer is a genetic disease, meaning it is caused by mutations in genes that control how our cells work, particularly how they divide and grow.

Cancer refers to a wide range of disorders that all stem from uncontrolled cellular development. Cancers are further characterized and classed by their cell type, tissue, or organ of origin. Cancers are broadly split between benign tumors (unable to spread) and malignant tumors (able to penetrate normal organs).

Cancer-causing genetic alterations can occur as a result of the following factors:

  • As a result of mistakes that occur when cells divide
  • Hazardous compounds in the environment, such as chemicals in cigarette smoke and UV rays from the sun, cause DNA damage. (For further information, see our Cancer Causes and Prevention section.)
  • They are passed down to from parents.

Cancer is one of the top four reasons for death in the world. This disease has a direct health effect on an individual patient and leaves an outstanding financial burden or financial toxicity to the patient’s family.

Differences between Cancer Cells and Normal Cells

Cancer cells are distinct from normal cells in a number of ways. Cancer cells, for instance:

  • Grow in the absence of external cues to do so. Normal cells can only develop in response to such signals.
  • Signals that tell cells to cease dividing or die are ignored (a process known as programmed cell death, or apoptosis).
  • Expand to other parts of the body by invading neighbouring areas. When normal cells come into contact with other cells, they cease growing, and most normal cells do not travel around the body.
  • Tell blood vessels to expand in the direction of malignancies. These blood veins provide oxygen and nourishment to tumours while also removing waste items.
  • Isolate themselves from the immunological system. Damaged or aberrant cells are generally eliminated by the immune system.
  • Deceive the immune system into assisting cancer cells in their survival and growth. Some cancer cells, for example, persuade immune cells to protect the tumour rather than attack it.
  • Chromosomes, such as duplications and deletions of chromosome sections, accrue numerous alterations. Some cancer cells have twice as many chromosomes as normal cells.
  • Rely on nutrients in a different way than normal cells. Furthermore, unlike most normal cells, some cancer cells generate energy from nutrients in a unique way. This allows cancer cells to multiply at a faster rate.

Why is Studying Cancer Biology Important?

Cancer research saves and improves lives. The purpose of cancer research is to find safe and effective strategies for preventing, detecting, diagnosing, treating, and, ultimately, curing the disorders that make up cancer. The more we learn about these diseases, the closer we will get to reducing cancer’s devastating human and economic costs.

We now have a lot of understanding about the biological mechanisms involved in cancer genesis, growth, and spread in the body thanks to research. As a result of these discoveries, more effective and focused treatments and prevention techniques have been developed.

Breakthroughs in prevention, early detection, screening, diagnosis, and treatment are frequently the product of decades or even generations of research and discoveries by scientists from several fields.

Some Facts and Data on Cancer Research

The most common in 2020 (in terms of new cases of cancer) were:

  • breast (2.26 million cases);
  • lung (2.21 million cases);
  • colon and rectum (1.93 million cases);
  • prostate (1.41 million cases);
  • skin (non-melanoma) (1.20 million cases); and
  • stomach (1.09 million cases).

The most common causes of cancer death in 2020 were:

  • lung (1.80 million deaths);
  • colon and rectum (916 000 deaths);
  • liver (830 000 deaths);
  • stomach (769 000 deaths); and
  • breast (685 000 deaths).

Each year, approximately 400 000 children develop cancer. The most common cancers vary between countries. Cervical cancer is the most common in 23 countries. 

Careers in Cancer Research

The goal of studying cancer is to develop safe and effective methods to prevent, detect, diagnose, treat, and, ultimately, cure the collections of diseases we call cancer. The better we understand these diseases, the more progress we will make toward diminishing the tremendous human and economic tolls of cancer.

Types of Cancer Research

There are numerous broad categories of cancer research:

Basic Research

Animals, cells, molecules, and genes are studied in basic research to learn more about cellular and molecular changes that occur spontaneously or during the progression of a disease. Basic research is also known as preclinical research or lab research.

Translational Research

The term “translational research” refers to a method of bringing laboratory discoveries into clinical practice as quickly as possible. This is referred to as shifting from the bench to the bedside.

Clinical Research

The application of treatments and processes in patients is referred to as clinical research. Clinical researchers perform clinical trials; examine a specific patient or group of patients, including their behaviors, or use human resources, such as blood or tissue samples, to learn about the disease, how it spreads, and how it is treated.

Population Research

The study of the causes and patterns of cancer occurrence, as well as the assessment of risk, is known as population research. Epidemiologists, or population scientists, examine the trends, causes, and consequences of health and disease in specified populations. Population research is extremely collaborative and can include a wide range of topics, from basic to clinical.

Who is a Cancer Researcher?

A cancer researcher is a medical professional who:

  • uses their skills and expertise to study cancer cells
  • how they interact with living organisms
  • try to discover ways to cure or prevent the disease

What does a cancer researcher do?

A cancer researcher can perform several important duties throughout their career, including:

  • Mixing chemical solutions for study and observation
  • Observing drugs and chemical compounds interacting with cancer cells
  • Operating specialized equipment for testing purposes
  • Studying side-effects of drugs and other cancer medications
  • Creating experiment reports for academic understanding
  • Reviewing researchers’ findings on different cancers and their effects

How to Become a Cancer Researcher?

  • Earn an undergraduate degree in a relevant field (e.g. medicine, biomedical sciences, biotechnology, biochemistry, genetics, bioinformatics, etc.)
  • Pursue Masters (MS/MSc) and then PhD or MD
  • Gain practical experience and develop technical skills

To qualify for the job, a cancer researcher is required to have a Ph.D. or an MD, plus proven work experience in the medical and healthcare field. A natural love for learning, especially in disciplines like chemistry and biology, will be helpful in this job.

Required Skills to become a cancer researcher

  • Domain Skills (wet lab and dry lab)
  • Curiosity and Creativity
  • Critical Thinking
  • Management of Existing Research Data & Information
  • Project Development & Successful Execution
  • Analysis & Problem-Solving
  • Team Work and Collaboration
  • Time Management
  • Oral Communication (including Public Speaking)
  • Written Communication

Popular Jobs in Cancer Research

  • Research Scientist
  • Research Assistant
  • Medical Oncologist
  • Clinical Researcher
  • Biomarker Development Specialist
  • Bioinformatician
  • Epidemiologist
  • Biostatistician
  • Data Scientist
  • Policy Maker
  • Scientific Writer / Editor / Journalist

Non-research-intensive cancer biology careers may include:

  • College-level teaching 
  •  Scientific publishing 
  •  Science policy, management and administration 
  •  Academic administration 
  •  Patent law 
  •  Science journalism

Cancer Research Salary

In India, cancer researchers (Ph.D. holders) can earn between INR 11 Lacs and 16 Lacs. Entry-level researchers (project research assistants) with Masters’s degrees can earn up to 8 Lacs per year.

In the US, Post-doctoral cancer researchers earn between USD $54,000 and $80,000 per annum. In the industry, salary ranges from USD $70,000 and $130,000 per annum.

Best Cancer Research Institutes


  • Netherlands Cancer Institute (NKI), Amsterdam (Netherlands)
  • CNIO, Madrid (Spain)
  • Radium Institute, Oslo (Norway)
  • Karolinska Institute, Stockholm (Sweden)
  • Marie Curie and Gustav Russie Institutes, Paris (France)
  • World Health Organization-funded IARC, Lyon (France)
  • German National Cancer Institute (DKFZ), Heidelberg (Germany)
  • The Institute of Cancer Research, London (UK)

Related Articles on Best Universities for Cancer Research in US and Canada:

MS Oncology (Cancer Research) in USA – Research Areas and Top Universities

Top Universities for Masters in Cancer Research in Canada

Featured Image Source: Down To Earth

Sources: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9.

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