Surgery for removal of solid tumors (i.e., breast, colon, skin, pancreas) is the oldest form of cancer treatment, first mentioned more than 3000 years ago. Today up to 80 percent of cancer cases worldwide require an operation, which is still considered the cornerstone for curative solid-tumor treatment.

Surgical oncologists perform many types of surgery that may be done early or late in the treatment process. Because of the necessity and important considerations of an operation as part of an overall care plan, the surgeon often plays a leading role within a cancer care team, which includes other oncology specialists such as pathologists, radiation oncologists and medical oncologists.

The treatment journey

In most cases, the surgical oncologist starts the patient on the treatment journey. Oftentimes the surgeon delivers the diagnosis, presents treatment options, discusses the role of genetics, adjuvant therapies and the progression of care. In today’s era of personalized medicine, the surgeon carefully reviews individual patient factors, has the important responsibility to coordinate care with other cancer specialists and develops a complete treatment plan that may include several forms of therapy and consultation with a multidisciplinary team.

It is this complexity that requires extensive education, training and expertise. The surgical oncologist knows when conservative surgery versus radical surgery is appropriate, and when other treatments such as radiation, chemotherapy or immunotherapy should be initiated.

Advancing research

The surgical oncologist plays a pivotal role in advancing cancer research and often serves as the lead physician to design and implement clinical trials, present studies to patients, and analyze results. Surgical oncologists participate in various national and international cancer task forces and commissions designed to improve care.

Groups such as the Global Forum of Cancer Surgeons and the Union of International Cancer Control look to improve both access and quality of care across the world. As cancer therapies evolve, so too will the role of the surgical oncologist. However, the surgical oncologists’ dutiful and caring relationships with their patients, deep knowledge of cancer treatments and responsibility to consult and coordinate treatment with other cancer specialists will continue to ensure the delivery of the best care for patients.