A hematologist is a physician who cares for patients with blood disorders. As there are numerous categories of blood disorders, hematologists come in all flavors. Two popular distinctions of hematologists are: benign hematologists and malignant hematologists. Since malignant hematologists are easier to explain (malignant = cancer), let's spend our time on the benign hematologists.
Benign hematologists treat blood disorders that are not cancer
A benign hematologist, like me, is an expert in blood disorders that are not cancerous. Examples of benign blood disorders are anemia, sickle cell disease, and hemophilia A.
The term "benign" is somewhat controversial because many people feel that it misleads people about the true nature of non-cancerous blood diseases, which are anything but benign.
If you do a Google search for "Benign," you find the following two relevant definitions:
1. (of a disease) not harmful in effect. "a benign condition"
2. (of a tumor) not malignant. "benign growths"
So you see that the "benign" refers to the fact that benign hematologists treat disorders that are not cancerous. Though not cancerous, the benign disorders we treat in hematology are definitely harmful. So, people take issue with the term "benign" because they feel that it misrepresents the severity of the diseases we treat. Therefore, to make it "crystal clear" that benign hematologists treat non-cancerous but harmful disorders, they recommend the term "non-malignant" hematologist.
Non-malignant hematologists treat non-cancerous, but harmful, blood disorders
Try saying non-malignant hematologist really fast for 30 seconds. Did you notice that you struggled through nine syllables? Given the 11 syllables in my legal name, I am not one to get upset at long and difficult to pronounce names. However, you may notice my preference to use the shorter version at eight syllables long. To get to the point, non-malignant hematologist doesn't roll off the tongue as easily as benign hematologist. And, since "benign" = "non-malignant", why use all those extra syllables? (These are the problems physicians grapple with). Furthermore, we benign hematologists (read me) do not like to be defined by "cancer" because, if we did, we would have become cancer doctors (insert favorite rant here). Recognizing the problems with defining non-cancer doctors by the fact that they don't treat cancer, some people have advocated using the term "classical hematologists."
Classical hematologists are not from the classical era
Perhaps classical hematologist is an improvement over non-malignant hematologist because it is one syllable shorter; but why stop at one? Why not go the extra mile, deduct two syllables and go back to benign hematologist? Seriously the classical hematologist stokes memories of the glorious 1700s in the hey day of the classical era. And perhaps I could even pretend for a minute that being called classical makes me feel classy. Being called classical makes me feel old. Like an artifact people take out of a case and polish every few months. Or like a dinosaur on the way to extinction. I love the sentiment, but please, don't call me classical.
Just call me a hematologist
Having aired my frustrations, I hereby propose that you call me, your "benign, I treat non-malignant disorders but am not of the classical era" hematologist, a hematologist (five syllables)! Or you can shoot for the stars and call me a "blood doctor" (three syllables. Nailed it!)" But, if you love complexity, blood doctor seems too simplistic. Won't people be confused, not understanding what kind of blood doctor I am?
A focus on the name may not be helpful
The problem with focusing on whether a hematologist treats cancerous or non-cancerous blood disorders is that it does not adequately represent the complexity of the blood disorders we treat. Within the sub-subspecialty of benign hematology are numerous subspecialties. Some of the more well known are the following
Red cell disorders, including congenital anemias, hemoglobinopathies, and hemolytic anemias
White cell disorders, including problems with high or low white counts
Platelet disorders, including problems of platelet number and function
Hemostasis and thrombosis (Coag yay!)
Disorders on the way to, but are not yet, cancer (myeloproloferative neoplasms)
And on the malignant hematology side of things, there are also may sub-subdivisions:
Acute myeloid leukemia
Acute lymphocytic leukemia
Chronic myeloid leukemia
Chronic lymphocytic leukemia
So, from the above, not quite comprehensive list, you can see that, within hematology, there are many subspecialties. Yes, we are trained in all aspects of hematology. We all take and pass certification exams that prove we know enough about the broad spectrum of blood disorders. Yes, some of us are generalists who treat a wide range of blood disorders. However, though most blood disorders rare, some are less common than others.
For this reason, the focus on whether or not the hematologist treats cancer keeps you from asking the most important question:
"Are you the right blood doctor to treat my specific blood disorder?"
To summarize, a hematologist is a doctor who treats blood disorders. But, even if all blood disorders were created equal, note that "some are more equal than others."