A surgical oncologist excises cancerous tumors and suspicious-looking tissue in a general hospital, outpatient surgical center, or specialty clinic. He or she plays an important role in every stage of cancer treatment, from extracting tissue samples for diagnostic purposes to removing masses before they grow and spread. Surgical oncologists work closely with physicians and radiologists to provide comprehensive care for patients of all ages.
Since cancers can affect patients in many different ways, almost all surgeons in the profession specialize by providing treatment for a particular type of cancer or body part. A surgical oncologist might focus on head and neck tumors, lung cancer, leukemia complications, or one of many other conditions. Some professionals specialize further, working exclusively with pediatric patients, women, or elderly people. By concentrating on a narrow area of patient care, surgical oncologists are able to offer the best possible chances for successful procedures and prompt recoveries.
The particular tasks and procedures vary considerably between specialties, but most surgical oncologists share a set of common responsibilities. A surgeon is typically consulted when physicians first notice a suspicious mass somewhere in a patient's body. When diagnostic imaging and blood tests suggest the presence of cancer, the surgical oncologist can perform a minimally-invasive procedure to collect a tissue sample, or biopsy.
Many biopsies can be performed by embedding a needle into a mass of suspicious tissue and extracting a small sample. For tumors that are difficult to reach with a needle, a surgical oncologist may need to make an incision and physically collect a sample with a scalpel. Biopsied tissue is carefully analyzed in a hospital laboratory, and results are reported to the surgeon and consulting physicians so the appropriate treatment measures can be taken.
Surgery is often the preferred mode of cancer treatment when tumors are discovered early. In many cases, a surgical oncologist can completely excise a tumor before cancer starts to spread elsewhere in the body. Excision procedures are performed in a number of different ways, depending on the size and location of masses. A surgeon may be able to manipulate a tiny camera and precision instruments to avoid large surgical scars and lessen the risk of complications. In other cases, open surgery is needed to locate and remove a tumor.
Extensive education and training are needed to become a surgical oncologist. Most professionals earn doctor of medicine degrees from accredited schools and participate in about four years of residency training to gain hands-on experience. Following a residency, a new surgeon generally enters a two- to three-year fellowship dedicated to a specialty. After completing training and board certification exams, a surgical oncologist can start working unsupervised.