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Surgical oncologist

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science at CTCA.

This page was updated on November 8, 2022.

Surgery is one of the most common treatments for cancer. It’s used for a variety of reasons, including to determine a diagnosis and staging through biopsy, tumor removal or reduction (also called debulking) and palliative surgery to help relieve symptoms. Some patients have surgery alone, while others undergo surgery as part of an overall plan that may include radiation therapy, chemotherapy and other treatments.

Surgical oncologists or general surgeons may perform surgeries to treat different cancers, especially solid tumors and those contained to one area. Whether surgery is recommended depends on several factors, including the type of tumor, its location and its stage when diagnosed. Providers also consider the patient’s preferences for treatment, age and ability to tolerate surgery.

About 780 surgical oncologists are practicing in the United States, according to the American Society of Clinical Oncology’s 2018 annual practice survey. The survey found most belong to small oncology practices that employ between one and five oncologists.

What is a surgical oncologist?

Surgery is performed by physicians who are specially trained in surgery and have focused their training on diagnosing and treating cancer.

Surgical oncologists may remove:

Surgical oncologists work with the cancer care teammedical oncologists, oncology nurses, radiologists, pathologists and those with a range of other medical specialties—to provide comprehensive cancer care.

Though surgical oncologists focus on cancer-specific surgeries, general surgeons also may perform these procedures. That’s particularly true for the more common cancers that require surgery: breast, skin (melanoma) and lower gastrointestinal tract (colorectal).

Surgical oncologists often work with medical oncologists, who may deliver chemotherapy if needed. In recent years, surgical oncologists have become more multidisciplinary and may offer treatments and procedures like advanced genomic testing, targeted therapy, neoadjuvant therapy and adjuvant therapy.

Learn more about surgical oncology

What training does a surgical oncologist receive?

To become a surgical oncologist, students must obtain a bachelor’s degree and graduate from medical school, typically a four-year program. They also must complete a residency, which may last three to seven years, then a fellowship in cancer surgery studying the removal of cancerous tumors. Most surgical oncology fellowships require an additional two years of study.

Questions to ask your surgical oncologist

Knowing what to expect during surgery may help patients and their loved ones feel better about their treatment choices. Here are some helpful questions to consider asking your surgical oncologist:

  • What are you planning to do during my surgery? What are the goals of this operation?
  • What is the success rate?
  • Will I need additional surgeries?
  • Am I healthy enough for surgery?
  • How will this surgery affect me? Will the changes be permanent?
  • What happens if I choose not to have this operation?
  • What if the surgery isn’t successful? What’s next?
  • Will my health insurance pay for this surgery? What will be my out-of-pocket costs?
  • What experience do you have performing this surgery? What are your typical outcomes?
  • What diet do I need to follow before and after my surgery?
  • How long will my recovery take? How long will I stay in the hospital?
  • What are the possible side effects of this surgery?
  • When may I return to normal activities (go to work, drive a car, have sex)?
  • How may I control pain from my surgery?
  • What are the signs of an infection? What should I do if I spot them?

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