An Open Letter to Oncology Sales Professionals

Congratulations.  You made it. You have become part of an exclusive club: you are an Oncology Sales Professional.

Most likely, you’ve been in medical sales for a while.  You knew you always wanted to be in Oncology.  You enjoy a more clinical sale, you are not afraid of a challenge and you are over being a lunch time caterer.

I’m with you.

Many of us in Oncology have Master’s Degrees, M.B.A.’s, Nursing Degrees, etc., and really interesting backgrounds.  Because of this, I like to think that I’m working among the best in the industry.  If you’ve worked in Oncology then you know, the most experienced, best clinical people work in Oncology sales.  Nobody gets an Oncology job as an entry level sales rep out of college. Charles Charles would never make it here.

I welcome you to our small circle.  The group of people who leave the house at 5 AM to truck on down to tumor board, the people who know that waiting 24 hours to respond to a client email is totally unacceptable, the people who know that you may be working a patient case on the weekend. Welcome.

Now, let’s talk about The Rules.


I’m a student of my craft.  And by craft, I don’t mean sales.  I mean being a clinical resource. When I joined the Oncology world about five years ago I studied, a lot. I also listened a lot; more than I spoke. Being new in Oncology is the proverbial “drinking from a fire hose.” Oncology comes with its own language, and the only way to learn it is to listen, to study and to practice.  Five years later I still study.  I read: All. The. Time.  That comes naturally to me- I’m interested in knowing a lot more than just my products.  If reading and exploring beyond your product doesn’t come naturally to you, I encourage you to set up time at least once a month where you read the latest and greatest in oncology or your tumor space.

Detail pieces are great…. but knowing more about your product in the context of a bigger oncology picture is better, and more important.

If you saw my inbox each morning with the number of industry alerts I get you might think it’s a little bit much, but it also means I’m on top of my game and I’m up to date on more than my product. My best moments on the job are when my clients stop me in my tracks and say, “wait, what is your background, how do you know all this stuff?”  It’s in these moments that I know I’ve proven myself as a clinical resource.  I strive to separate myself from the pack this way and it works.  Detail pieces are great…. but knowing more about your product in the context of a bigger oncology picture is better, and more important.  In this way you can add value.  In this way you can partner with your clients.  Do us all a favor and raise your game.  Study your tail off.

Here’s an example of what can happen when you don’t know your stuff, as told by one of my colleagues, who happens to be extremely on top of her clinical game now a days:

“When I first started in this territory, I had a doc degrade me for 50 minutes and told me to never come back until I knew my effing sh*t. Afterwards, I walked down the block into a little alcove area, sat down and bawled my eyes out.”

That’s reality. If you are coming from a primary care world where there are 30 me-too products that do the same thing, where you were required to get “x” number of signatures per day, and often felt like the UPS man delivering samples, you probably felt like you weren’t adding much value to the healthcare conversation. All that changes in our world. Here, you are expected to bring value to the conversation. In the Oncology world, whatever you are selling is (relatively) unique and we (generally) operate by appointment, not sample drive-by drop offs.

Another reason to know your stuff is you have one chance to prove yourself when you get that first face time with your customer.  You may have waited nine months for that appointment or lunch.  You may have waited in the waiting room so many times you are mistaken for a patient.  You may literally think you will never see this oncologist. When you get that appointment you need to nail it. Non-negotiable.  Know your stuff and prove yourself.  Nothing is handed to you in our world. Only then will you find yourself no longer waiting in waiting rooms, but instead receiving requests to come to the office and questions about patient cases that are relevant to your product.



Once you do receive those requests, it is absolutely critical that you are responsive, as quickly as you can be, and that your response time is no greater than 24 hours.

When you receive that request to come to the hospital from a physician whose 40 year old patient on a ventilator has been given 24 hours to live and her family has Power of Attorney and has finally decided they want to know if their family is at hereditary risk, you better haul yourself down to that hospital, regardless of whether it’s convenient or not.  After that patient is gone, that information dies with them, and that family is left to wonder, “what if.”

That request and your response time will make or break your chances of ever working with that provider again in the future.


There are two circles: your clients (this includes their staff!) and your fellow oncology sales professionals.  They are both important to your survival.  You see, oncologists remain the most difficult specialty to access among the top 20 common specialties, and it’s no joke how hard it really is to see them.  ZS Associates, a healthcare consulting firm, publishes really interesting data around physician access and Industry marketing strategies.  In their most recent oncology research, ZS reported that Oncology is the most restrictive specialty for sales people for the second year in a row. An overwhelming 65% of oncologists reported they had placed moderate-severe restrictions on access for industry reps, and an additional 11% reported placing severe restrictions on access.  I don’t have to tell you, the math is not in our favor. Compare this to less than half of primary care accounts surveyed placing similar restrictions, and you might wonder why you chose to be in Oncology. This means you must always respect the time and wishes of your clients.  If they give you 10 minutes for an appointment don’t keep them prisoner for 30.  You will not only break the trust with that client but you will ruin it for the rest of us, in effect, breaking both circles of trust.  While you might think that breaking the circle of trust among your colleagues from other companies is not important, I am here to tell you otherwise.

As I mentioned before, we’re a small group of sales professionals compared to a primary care world.  Many Oncology Sales Professionals have been in the space for a long time, and the industry for even longer.  We know things.  We know people, and we like helping each other. We have developed relationships you couldn’t possibly have in your first year as an Oncology Sales Professional.  (Note: that’s OK.  You’ll get there too if you follow The Rules.)  This means you don’t show up at a sponsored tumor board “accidentally” when you know you should only be there if you sponsored.  (On that note, never, ever speak up at tumor board unless you are called on.  Don’t do it.) It means you don’t stop by with doughnuts and coffee when you know the physician will be meeting with their scheduled rep that day. (By the way, lose the doughnuts and coffee.) It means you respect your colleagues, and know they are facing the same challenges you do.

In the DC/Baltimore area we are really fortunate to have a listserv for all Oncology Sales Professionals on which we communicate updates about accounts, trade appointments, look for swaps and make sure our clients are being treated in the right way.  We look out for each other.  If you are in the DC area and need to get on the listserv, shoot me a note.  I’ll get you to the right person.


You must always remember, at the end of that chemo line, on the table in the OR, behind that film displayed on the screen at tumor board, connected to that tube of blood at the lab: there is always a patient’s life at stake. There is a family that is hurting.  There’s a doctor who is trying their best to fight an ugly opponent that doesn’t play fair, and doctors are working under extraordinary circumstances where they are asked to do more for less and with less.  The best oncology sales professionals know this.  They remember this. You think you got screwed with your quota this quarter? (Maybe you did, c’est la vie sometimes in sales.) Well, how about trading places with that patient.  I bet they would take you up on the offer. Reps who think only about their commission can be seen through just like a window.  Most of the time we make great money.  Sometimes we don’t, but don’t be that rep.  Make the right decision, every time, and it will pay dividends.  Doing the right thing will never come back to haunt you.


I’m talking go out to your car and cry awful days.  Oncology sales can be tough.  It can also be extremely rewarding.  I am often involved on young cases- I remember some of them vividly.  There’s just some cases that stick with you, and make you thankful for everything you have in your life.  One time a case might just hit you in a way that you can’t explain.  Be prepared.  It will happen.

You’ll have some days where you wonder if you made an impact anywhere.  You’ll have days where you are soaking wet, drenched in rain and certain that steam is rising from your clothing when you walk into buildings.  You will pick up lunch for an office and it will spill all over your car/you. (Note: ALWAYS use a delivery service- what are you, a caterer? No.)  You will get stuck on the Beltway and it will take you two hours to go five miles so you miss your one allotted appointment for the year, or the staff will “forget” to put your meeting in the physician’s calendar.  You will schedule a dinner program with a world renowned oncologist as the speaker and everyone who RSVP’ed will stand you up.  (You will be mortified, but take the opportunity to learn from the speaker during your one on one dinner that you will have instead.) You will be asked if you need a college degree to do your job.  (Demonstrate restraint.  This person probably hates their life.) One day, you will be right and the doctor will be wrong.  Back your statements up with fact and know that you still may lose the debate.

One day it will be all you can handle.  You’ll get a latte from Starbucks, you’ll turn on your radio, and you’ll sit in your car and cry, out of pure frustration– but just for a minute.  Then you’ll put on your big girl panties and you’ll do it all over again.


Welcome to your first year in Oncology Sales.  Hold on tight.  It will sure be an adventure, and hopefully one you will be glad you came on.

Many thanks to my fellow Oncology Sales Professionals, Leeann Barlow, Angela Redding, and Tara Hasher, for serving as consultants on this piece and as my day-to-day support network. 

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4 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Oncology Sales Professionals

  1. Liz,

    I recently just started this new world of Oncology sales. I am feeling most of these emotions now; am I good enough, is this job for me, will I ever make it pass a receptionist. Given I’ve only been in this role for a few weeks, I feel these emotions daily.

    Great article, thank you for the read.


    1. Brett,

      Thank you for stopping by! I think everything you are feeling is so common.

      Be patient. The first year is hard- nobody really understands how hard it is until they are in the thick of it. Start reading a lot so you are prepared and knowledgeable. Even after the first year, this is not an easy job, but it can be very fulfilling. If I can help you with anything or you want to bounce ideas in the future, don’t hesitate to reach out. You can connect with me on LinkedIn too- Best of luck to you!



  2. As a patient speaker for Myriad Genetics, I’ve seen the difference that can be made by truly dedicated, compassionate, professional oncology sales professionals. My family’s lives have been saved because of the work you do every day. The work you do has helped me be identified as having Lynch Syndrome, resulting in me being caught 6 times in a precancerous stage. That’s 6 times I did not get cancer. Before my family was diagnosed we had 10 cancer deaths. Since our diagnosis, we’ve had ZERO cancer deaths. The work you do saves lives. Thank you.


    1. Hi Diane, Thank you so much for your thoughtful comment and for stopping by to read. It is families like yours that get me out of bed in the morning, and to know we’ve made a real difference for your family makes me happy. Your brave commitment to sharing your story undoubtedly helps other families as well, in ways that we can’t! I got chills your family’s numbers. That is truly an amazing story!! Best wishes- Liz


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