​Surgical oncology

This page was reviewed under our medical and editorial policy by

Maurie Markman, MD, President, Medicine & Science.

This page was updated on April 20, 2022.

The overarching field of oncology has a number of ways to diagnose and treat cancer. Medical oncology often uses chemotherapy drugs to attack the cancer, while radiation oncology relies on various forms of radiation therapy. Hematology-oncology treats blood cancers. Dermatology, interventional pulmonology and other fields of medicine may also be involved in the process.

Surgical oncology is the field of cancer care that focuses on surgery to diagnose, stage and treat cancer, and to manage some cancer-related symptoms. Surgical oncologists at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) work on a multidisciplinary team of physicians and clinicians to combine surgery with other therapies and procedures required by the patient’s comprehensive plan.

Our surgeons and surgical oncology teams at CTCA® have years of experience in performing surgical procedures for many types of cancer, including advanced and complex tumors. Our patient care also includes the use of palliative surgeries to control pain, increase your comfort level and improve your quality of life.

Our surgical oncologists take the time to discuss with each patient the diagnosis and treatment options available to them, answering their questions and concerns. The surgical oncologists will work with the other team members—including nutritionists, rehabilitation therapists and naturopathic providers—to anticipate and manage side effects of surgery.

Whether you are a candidate for surgery depends on factors such as the type, size, location, grade and stage of the tumor, as well as general health factors such as your age, physical fitness and any coexisting medical conditions you may have.

What is the goal of surgical oncology?

There are many reasons someone with or suspected of having cancer may undergo surgery. Surgical oncology may be used to:

  • Diagnose cancer (diagnostic surgery or biopsy)
  • Remove a tumor or a portion of the cancer (curative or debulking surgery)
  • Determine where the cancer is located, whether it has spread and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs (staging surgery)
  • Remove body tissue that may become cancerous (preventive surgery)
  • Support other types of treatment, such as installing an infusion port (supportive surgery)
  • Restore the body's appearance or function (reconstructive surgery)
  • Relieve side effects (palliative surgery)

How is cancer surgery performed?

There are two primary types of cancer surgery: open surgery and minimally invasive surgery.

In open surgery, the surgical oncologist will make a large incision, usually to remove all or part of a tumor and some of the surrounding healthy tissue (margins).

Minimally invasive surgical techniques may involve:

  • Laparoscopy: A surgical oncologist will make a few small incisions and insert a laparoscope—a thin tube with a tiny camera attached to it—into one of the incisions to capture an interior image, while inserting surgical tools into the other incisions to excise malignancies and surrounding tissue.
  • Laser surgery: The surgeon will use a narrow beam of high-intensity light to remove a tumor.
  • Cryosurgery: The surgeon will use liquid nitrogen to freeze and kill cancer cells.
  • Robotic surgery: This surgery is similar to a laparoscopic surgery. However, instead of manipulating surgical tools by hand, the surgeon uses a computer console to operate the robotic tools.

Other procedures, such as endoscopies, embolization, Mohs micrographic surgery and pleuroscopies, may be performed by non-surgeons, including dermatologists, radiation oncologists and interventional pulmonologists, depending on the procedure.

Non-surgical treatments may take place before surgery (neoadjuvant therapy) or after surgery (adjuvant therapy) to help prevent cancer growth, metastasis or recurrence. The treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or hormone therapy.

What are the side effects of cancer surgery?

As with general surgery, there may be complications that arise from surgical oncology procedures.

Some of the common side effects of cancer surgery include:

  • Infection
  • Swelling
  • Fatigue
  • Pain
  • Lymphedema
  • Nausea

Are you in need of a surgical oncologist?

Cancer surgery is used to treat a wide range of cancers, depending on their location, size and stage. The multidisciplinary teams at CTCA will discuss with you, and one another, the specific indications of your diagnosis and advise you on an individualized course of action tailored to your needs and treatment goals.

Some cancers that are commonly treated with surgical oncology include:

What is the Advanced Surgical Recovery Program (ASURE)?

The Advanced Surgical Recovery Program (ASURE) at CTCA is designed to help patients recover from surgery more quickly and with fewer complications. ASURE is intended to improve surgical outcomes and enhance the patient experience before, during and after surgery, while also reducing a patient’s overall hospital stay.

The program is delivered by CTCA multidisciplinary teams, which include surgeons, anesthesiologists, nutritionists, behavioral health therapists, nurses and other clinicians. They work collaboratively to implement evidenced-informed protocols, all under one roof. ASURE combines post-surgical rehabilitation with pre-habilitation, by preparing patients before surgery.

Typically, ASURE protocols involve nutrition, pain management with non-narcotic pain relievers and physical activity within 24 hours after surgery. The use of enhanced recovery methods like those used in ASURE has been shown to reduce fatigue, post-surgery complications and the amount of narcotics used in post-surgical care, while helping patients resume their everyday activities more quickly.

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