Hospital team

Surgical oncology is a type of cancer care that diagnoses, treats, or manages the disease with surgery. Your care team may recommend surgery at any stage in your cancer journey. They may combine surgical treatment with other therapies you receive.

Never Miss a Beat!

Get Healthy Tips Sent to Your Phone!

Message and data rates may apply. Text the word STOP to opt out and HELP for help. Click here to view the privacy and terms.

Types of Surgery for Cancer

Surgical oncology includes many different types of procedures, and some require a high level of experience.

  • Diagnosis: Your doctor may use surgery to figure out if you have cancer. He or she removes part or all of a tumor, lump, or mole for more study. This process is called taking a biopsy.
  • Staging: This tells your doctor how far your cancer has progressed and is an important part of determining treatment and prognosis. This is typically done through blood work, imaging, and surgery. A surgical oncologist will look at how large the tumor is and if the cancer has spread to other parts of your body. A surgical oncologist also will remove lymph nodes around the tumor to test them for cancer cells. This test helps the surgeon know how much cancer is in the body and how far it has spread.
  • Tumor removal: The doctor may remove the entire tumor and some healthy tissue around it. You may have chemotherapy or other treatment to shrink the tumor before your surgeon tries to remove it. You also may have additional therapies after surgery to prevent the disease from spreading or to destroy any remaining cancer cells.
  • Partial tumor removal: Sometimes it’s not safe for the surgeon to remove the entire tumor, so he or she takes out as much as possible, a procedure called debulking.
  • Symptom relief: Palliative surgery addresses your symptoms. A tumor may cause pain, bleeding, or problems with normal functions such as swallowing. The surgeon may remove all or part of the mass to help you feel better.
  • Reconstruction: Cancer treatment can leave you with scars or changes to your body that you may want to modify. Breast reconstruction, plastic surgery, and other procedures aim to improve the look of areas affected by your treatment. Other surgeries restore bodily functions, such as digestion, that were harmed during therapy.
  • Prevention. Sometimes people choose to undergo surgery before getting a diagnosis. This may include removing breasts, uterus, or ovaries for women who are at very high risk of getting cancer in these areas of the body.

Surgery for Your Cancer

Many types of cancer can be treated with surgery, and your doctor or care team will discuss your options with you. All surgery carries some risk, and it’s important to talk to your care team about what to expect. A surgeon who is experienced with your type of cancer and the specific procedure you need also can make a difference. Be sure to research your doctors before settling on one.

Depending on your procedure, your surgeon, and what hospital you choose, you may have some options of how the surgeon approaches your treatment. Minimally invasive surgery is an option for many types of cancer. Compared to traditional surgeries that involve large cuts, minimally invasive surgery means small incisions — or sometimes no incisions at all.

Laparoscopic surgery uses tiny tools inserted through small incisions. Smaller cuts mean less scarring, shorter recovery times, and lower risk of infection. Doctors can perform laparoscopic procedures robotically in many cases as well.

Endoscopic surgery uses a thin tube (called an endoscope), with a light and tiny camera attached, that is inserted into the body through the nose, mouth, rectum, or other areas. Your surgeon can use tiny tools through the endoscope to perform surgery.

Before having any surgery, talk with your care team about the risks and benefits, as well as the recovery time and how you can best prepare.

American Society of Clinical Oncology. What Is Cancer Surgery? Link

About UPMC Hillman Cancer Center

When you are facing cancer, you need the best care possible. UPMC Hillman Cancer Center provides world-class cancer care, from diagnosis to treatment, to help you in your cancer battle. We are the only comprehensive cancer center in our region, as designated by the National Cancer Institute. We have more than 70 locations throughout Pennsylvania, Ohio, and New York, with more than 200 oncologists – making it easier for you to find world-class care close to home. Our internationally renowned research team is striving to find new advances in prevention, detection, and treatment. Most of all, we are here for you. Our patient-first approach aims to provide you and your loved ones the care and support you need. To find a provider near you, visit our website.