Surgical Oncology: The Basics

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: October 9, 2018

Surgical oncology is the use of surgery to treat cancer. Surgery is done to remove tumors that are cancer. Surgery can be used by itself to treat the cancer or it can be done with other treatments. Surgery can help cancer care team members:

  • diagnose a cancer
  • stage cancer 
  • plan other treatment you may need

Not all cancers can be treated with surgery. In the case of blood cancers (leukemia), there is no “mass” to remove with surgery. In some cases, the patient may not be healthy enough to have surgery. For others, the tumor may not be able to be safely removed without causing problems for the patient. Your team will help decide if surgery is right for you. 

Surgery in cancer care is used to:

  • Diagnose and stage a cancer. 
  • Remove the whole cancer (tumor/mass). 
  • Remove some, but not all of the tumor. A surgeon may not be able to safely remove all of the cancer because it could harm other parts of the body. This is often called a debulking surgery. 
  • Ease symptoms caused by the cancer. This is called palliative surgery.
  • To return/change the body’s condition after a surgery. This is called reconstructive or restorative surgery. Examples of this type of surgery are breast reconstruction or reversal of colostomy.

How is surgery used with other treatments?

Surgery may be the only treatment for some patients. For many people, surgery is used along with other treatments. These can be chemotherapy, biologic, targeted or immune therapies, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy. Other surgeries, such as those used in interventional specialties, may be used too. 

You may hear surgery called:

  • Neoadjuvant – This means the surgery is done after some other treatment.. In some cases, more treatment will also be given after the surgery.
  • Adjuvant – This means the surgery is done before the other treatments. 

What are the risks of surgery?

All surgery has risks. These can be:

  • pain 
  • Infection
  • delayed wound healing 
  • bleeding. 

Each cancer surgery is different. Your surgeon will talk with you about the risks and benefits of your surgery. 

Resources for More Information

ASCO "What is cancer surgery?" Retrieved from https://www.cancer.net/navigating-cancer-care/how-cancer-treated/surgery/what-cancer-surgery

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