Different types of surgeons can remove cancerous growths, which means the road to become an oncology surgeon isn’t always straightforward. Some surgeons specialize in the field of surgical oncology, but there are also many general surgeons, who, as part of regular practice will perform surgeries that involve removal of tumors or growths. To complicate matters, sometimes specialist surgeons who perform surgeries on specific parts of the body may perform oncology related surgeries. Neurosurgeons, gynecologists and others might fall into this grouping. Therefore, most surgeons will follow some or all of the career choices of surgical oncologists, but paths diverge as doctors become increasingly more specialized.
Most doctors interested in tumor removal and surgery begin by getting a four-year undergraduate degree in subjects like pre-med or one of the sciences. This is different in the UK where medical school and undergraduate work are taught together. In places like Canada and the US, a four-year degree is earned first, prior to applying to medical school.
Medical school has three years of study and a fourth year internship. After completion, people can become licensed physicians, but if they want to specialize, they apply in their internship year to residencies. Those who’d like to become an oncology surgeon, general surgeon or other specialist surgeon will need to gain entrance to a surgical residency. The residency is arduous, and usually takes about six to seven years to complete. At this point, doctors may begin practicing medicine as general surgeons. The doctor has not yet become an oncology surgeon, though he may perform lots of surgeries to remove tumors.
For the person who wants to solely specialize and become an oncology surgeon, more training is needed. The would-be surgical oncologist will have to join a fellowship program and study and practice for approximately two to three additional years. Such programs are few in number and will require strong recommendations from reputable surgical residency instructors, plus demonstrable research skills, to gain entry. Once fellowships are completed, these doctors are then trained to deal with the more complex and challenging cases of surgical treatment of cancer.
With certain types of cancer, a surgical oncologist may involve other specialists. This may be especially the case when dealing with very complex cancers involving the spine or brain. It would not be uncommon for a surgical oncologist to hand a case to a neurosurgeon, for example, or to work jointly with a neurosurgeon on a challenging case.
Just as the general surgeon removes malignancies, most other specialist surgeons encounter cases of cancer where tumor removal is needed. In essence, virtually any specialist surgeon, to a degree, has become an oncology surgeon. Cardiothoracic, pediatric, plastic, gynecological and other surgery subspecialties all occasionally deal with oncology and have about the same level of training as the surgical oncologist in their specialties. The main difference is the surgical oncologist works solely on the surgical removal of cancers, and general surgeons or surgeon specialists may surgically treat conditions unrelated to cancer.