What Is a Surgical Oncologist?

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on July 13, 2023
4 min read

Surgical oncologists are general surgeons with specialty training in procedures for diagnosing, staging (determining the stage of cancer), or removing cancerous growths. The most common procedures performed by surgical oncologists are biopsies and surgery for cancerous growth removal. They can also perform surgery to stage cancer and determine how far cancer has spread. In certain circumstances, surgical oncologists may also perform preventive surgeries. In some cases, surgery may be the only treatment you need. In other circumstances, you may have surgery and receive additional treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation. In these cases, a surgical oncologist may be an important part of your cancer care team.

To diagnose cancers, surgical oncologists may perform biopsies. Biopsy procedures can include:

  • Needle biopsies such as fine needle aspiration or core biopsies
  • Excisional (removing an entire suspicious area, such as a mole or tumor)
  • Incisional (removing a portion of a suspicious area)
  • Laparotomy (abdominal surgery)
  • Endoscopic or laparoscopic (surgery using a scope)
  • Skin biopsy

Following a biopsy, a surgical oncologist will send tissue samples to a pathologist, who checks for cancer cells. If cancer is present, you may see the surgical oncologist again to have a tumor or other tissue removed. A surgical oncologist may also choose to perform a staging surgery to find out a tumor’s size and if cancer has spread. 

Surgery can be an effective way to remove cancerous growths associated with skin, breast, liver, pancreatic, colon, or other types of cancers. When treating cancer, surgical oncologists may remove all or part of cancerous tumors, remove surrounding healthy tissue, or remove nearby lymph nodes. Surgical procedures used will vary based on the purpose of the surgery as well as the portions of the body and size of the tissue affected. Surgical oncologists may perform open surgeries or minimally invasive procedures such as:

Surgical oncologists are medical doctors or osteopathic medical doctors who have trained in surgery with a focus on cancer diagnosis and treatments. Similar to other types of doctors and surgeons, surgical oncologists complete medical school and pass an exam to be able to practice medicine.

Becoming a surgical oncologist involves several educational steps:

  • Complete a bachelor’s degree
  • Graduate from medical school or osteopathic medical school
  • Finish a residency in general surgery
  • Optionally take the General Surgery Certifying Examination
  • Complete a fellowship in surgical oncology

Some surgical oncologists choose to specialize in their field with additional research into specific cancers such as skin, gastrointestinal (stomach or intestine related), or gynecological. Surgical oncologist specialties can also be in specific age groups, such as pediatrics.

There are many reasons you might see a surgical oncologist. Some of them include:

Biopsy or Cancer Treatment

You might see a surgical oncologist if you have a growth or tumor. If your primary care doctor suspects you might have cancer, they can refer you to a surgical oncologist for a biopsy. If you have already been diagnosed with cancer, a doctor may refer you to a surgical oncologist as part of your cancer treatment. 

Preventive Surgery

You can also see a surgical oncologist for preventive surgery. This type of surgery involves removing precancerous tissue or removing tissue or specific organs to prevent developing cancer in the future. Preventative surgery is most common with patients who have genetic traits for developing cancer or who have close relatives who have been diagnosed with cancer.

Before a biopsy or surgery, you meet with a surgical oncologist to discuss options and learn about procedures. Your surgical oncologist will determine if a biopsy or cancer surgery is a good fit for you and if specialty procedures are necessary.

If you will be getting a biopsy, your preparation will depend on the kind of biopsy you are having. The surgical oncologist’s office will let you know what to do to prepare and can answer questions you have about the procedure.

If surgery is necessary, a nurse may contact you with instructions on how to prepare for surgery. The nurse will let you know if additional tests such as blood tests are necessary before surgery.

Following surgery, you will be given instructions regarding:

  • Pain management
  • Activities to avoid
  • Caring for incision sites
  • When you can resume certain activities, like work
  • If you have special dietary instructions before or after surgery

You may have follow-up visits with your surgical oncologist to go over biopsy results as well as check on incision healing. For complex cancer treatments, you may need to see your surgical oncologist regularly.