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Surgical Oncology


Oncology is the specialty of treating cancer with surgery. There are many types of cancer surgeries, ranging from treatment of prostate cancer to breast cancer. There is some overlap in the practice of surgical oncology. For example, a brain surgeon may operate on brain tumors.

Cancer surgery — an operation to repair or remove part of your body to diagnose or treat cancer — remains the foundation of cancer treatment. The doctor may use cancer surgery to achieve any number of goals, from diagnosing and treating your cancer to relieving the symptoms it causes. Cancer surgery may be your only treatment, or it may be supplemented with other treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological therapy.

Cancer surgery may be used to achieve one or more goals. Common reasons that a patient might undergo cancer surgery include:

  • Cancer prevention: If there’s reason to believe that the patient has a high risk of developing cancer in certain tissues or organs, the doctor may recommend removing those tissues or organs before cancer develops. For example, if the patient has a genetic condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, the doctor may use cancer surgery to remove his colon and rectum because the patient has a high risk of developing colon cancer

Diagnosis: The doctor may use a form of cancer surgery to remove all or part of a tumor — allowing the tumor to be studied under a microscope — to determine whether the growth is cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign)

Staging: Cancer surgery helps the doctor define how advanced the cancer is, called its stage. Surgery allows the doctor to evaluate the size of tumor and determine whether it’s traveled to the lymph nodes. Additional tests might be necessary to gauge the cancer’s stage

Primary treatment: For many tumors, cancer surgery is the best chance for a cure, especially if the cancer is localized and hasn’t spread. If there’s evidence that cancer hasn’t spread, the doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous tumor as primary treatment

Debulking: When it’s not possible to remove all of a cancerous tumor — for example, because doing so may severely harm an organ — the doctor may remove as much as possible (debulking) in order to make chemotherapy or radiation more effective

Relieving symptoms or side effects: Sometimes surgery is used to improve the quality of life rather than to treat the cancer itself — for example, to relieve pain caused by a tumor that’s pressing on a nerve or bone or to remove a tumor that’s blocking the intestine

Surgery is often combined with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Whether the patients opt to undergo additional cancer treatment or not, depend on the type of cancer and its stage.

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