Surgical Oncology: The Basics

Author: Marisa Healy, BSN, RN
Last Reviewed:

Surgical oncology is the use of surgery to treat cancer. Surgery is done to remove tumors that have cancer cells in them. Surgery can be used by itself to treat the cancer, or it can be done with other treatments. Surgery can help:

  • Diagnose cancer.
  • Stage cancer. 
  • Plan other treatment you may need.

Not all cancers can be treated with surgery. In some cases, you may not be healthy enough to have surgery. For others, the tumor may not be able to be removed without causing problems.. Your team will help decide if surgery is right for you. 

Surgery for cancer is used to:

  • Diagnose and stage cancer. 
  • Remove the whole cancer (tumor/mass). 
  • Remove some, but not all of the tumor. A surgeon may not be able to remove all of the cancer because it could harm other parts of your body. This is often called a debulking surgery. 
  • Ease symptoms caused by the cancer. This is called palliative surgery.
  • To return your 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. Surgery may also be used along with other treatments. These can be chemotherapy, biologic, targeted or immune therapies, radiation therapy, and hormone therapy.

You may hear surgery called:

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

What are the risks of surgery?

All surgery has risks. These can be:

  • Pain. 
  • Infection.
  • Your wound taking a long time to heal.
  • Bleeding. 

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

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