Should I See a General Surgeon or Specialist for Cancer Treatment?

When you're faced with a cancer diagnosis, it's good to know that both general surgeons and surgical oncologists can provide excellent care when your treatment plan calls for surgery. However, in some cases, your cancer care team may recommend seeing a surgical oncologist specifically.

What are surgical oncologists, and how do they differ from general surgeons? Below, learn facts about both specialties and when you may want to call upon a surgical oncologist for your care.

General surgeon and surgical oncologist defined

General surgeons and surgical oncologists are similar in that all surgical oncologists are general surgeons. Both must complete a five-year general surgery residency program. During this time, they become specialized in a broad range of surgical procedures.

General surgeons:

  • Diagnose, treat, and provide pre- and postoperative care for a variety of conditions (including cancer) that affect the head and neck, digestive tract, breast, abdomen, skin, soft tissues, and endocrine and vascular systems
  • Care for both pediatric and adult patients
  • Rreat patients in emergency rooms, trauma centers and intensive care units
The difference between the two is that surgical oncologists go through two to three years of additional training in advanced surgical oncology methods and tumor biology and behavior.

Surgical oncologists also:

  • Only perform cancer-related surgeries
  • Have advanced training in other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, and know how they work together with surgery
  • Take part in cancer research

When it's beneficial to see a surgical oncologist

Though general surgeons are trained to perform cancer-related surgeries, there are times when a surgical oncologist's extra training may be beneficial. You may benefit from a surgical oncologist's perspective and care if:
  • Your cancer is in an advanced stage, complex or complicated and requires special collaboration between a medical, radiation and surgical oncologist
  • Your cancer care team suggests an advanced form of treatment such as hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy (HIPEC) or the Whipple procedure
  • Your cancer has spread to the liver
  • You have a rare type of tumor such as a sarcoma
  • You have an aggressive type of skin cancer like melanoma
Before choosing a surgeon, be sure to ask all of your cancer doctors what all of your treatment options are. This will help you find the right surgical procedure and surgeon for your type of cancer.

Cancer is a condition that requires the expertise of a whole team of specialists. See how general surgeons and surgical oncologists at The Christ Hospital Health Network work with the entire cancer care team to provide multidisciplinary, patient-centered care.