Surgical oncology refers to the type of oncology that treats cancer via surgery, generally by removing tumors or cancerous tissue. There’s some confusion on exactly who practices surgical oncology and this may vary. Many times when surgical treatment of cancer is warranted, doctors called upon are general surgeons. Yet other times, those who practice surgical oncology have trained specifically in this subject for some time and are part of a small group of specialists.
Anyone who practices surgical oncology, regardless of title, can be skilled at the surgical removal of tumors in most of the body. Other types of surgeons might remove tumors in the spine, skeletal structure or brain. This is usually only the beginning of cancer treatment for people. After undergoing tumor removal, patients may require the services of a medical oncologist who will help administer chemo and look for signs of remission or recurrence. In fact, it may frequently be the case that a medical oncologist, who is not a surgeon, will refer a patient to a surgical oncologist first for surgery prior to chemotherapy. Medical and surgical oncologists may work closely together to provide best care for patients.
This specialty is considered one of the surgical disciplines and it has different training than non-surgical forms of oncology. At minimum, general surgeons must complete about 5 years of post-medical school residency training in general surgery. Then competition gets extremely fierce for surgical oncology. There are less than 20 programs in the US offering this specialty. If surgeons get accepted to one of these programs, they spend three more years studying. Moreover, there are now some surgical oncology subspecialties like breast cancer surgery, which may extend length of study time.
While this extra training certainly trains the surgeon well, many people may not every meet a surgical oncologist because they’re few in number. Though surgical oncology is a specialty, the term may only define a way of treatment practiced most by general surgeons. It’s obvious surgical oncologists are very highly trained specialists, but many times this extra specialization isn’t required for excellent care.
Since the term is evolving, it might be better to call surgery oncology both an approach and a discipline. General surgeons practice it when needed to treat cancer, and without having completed a residency in the field they may choose to focus their careers on surgical cancer treatment. On the other hand, a general surgeon might do the occasional oncology surgery and lots of other procedures. This could be true for surgeons in smaller communities who serve a varied population.