Individuals who want to become cancer surgeons need many years of training after college. An aspiring surgical oncologist must complete a general surgery residency, pass a board exam to become a certified surgeon and pass a licensing exam to practice surgery before being accepted into a surgical oncology fellowship. A general surgery residency usually requires about five years of work. The program includes a few classes, but is mainly focused on allowing students to observe and gain hands-on experience in a variety of surgical procedures. The admissions process is competitive. Applicants need a Doctor of Medicine degree, and achievements during medical school and demonstrated academic interest in cancer are also usually helpful.
In a surgical oncology fellowship, students are exposed to many aspects of cancer treatment. Fellowships usually take 2-3 years and, upon completion, surgeons can be prepared for academic and medical careers. They must complete operations that involve many types of cancers and participate in many other invasive procedures such as biopsies. Exposure to various types of non-surgical treatments is important as well so that students are well-versed in all aspects of treatment. These students also engage in research and participate in conferences.
A general surgery residency training program needs to be completed prior to entering a program that specializes in oncology. Students learn to use equipment like surgical lasers, microscopes, scissors and clamps. They can also refine abilities such as written and oral communication, critical thinking and patient sensitivity, and can observe and practice a variety of surgical procedures. Students are also immersed in original research and may take on the responsibility of teaching surgical knowledge to junior medical students.
Some coursework in a residency training program takes place in classrooms, but much of the training is completed through hands-on work in hospitals and other treatment centers. Students are educated in topics like:
- Pre-operative and post-operative procedures
- Surgical judgment, decisions and safety
- Plastic surgery
- Transplantation surgery
- Fetal surgery
Surgical Oncology Fellowship
Fellowships in surgical oncology expose surgeons to many aspects of holistic cancer treatment. Research projects, clinical rotations in operation rooms and outpatient treatment centers, memberships in journals and boards, participation in conferences and training in non-surgical cancer studies are important components of a fellowship.
Fellows must typically complete at least 120 operations during their training, and various manifestations of cancers require different minimum numbers of operations. Fellows must also take part in procedures such as laparoscopic surgery, sentinel node biopsy and radiofrequency ablation.
Surgical oncologists must be dedicated to providing superior care to their patients, expanding cancer research and contributing to the multidisciplinary approach to cancer treatment. It is necessary that they demonstrate leadership as well as cooperate with medical experts in order to properly diagnose patients and design and carry out custom treatment regimens. Applicants to fellowship programs must have graduated from or already spent significant time working in accredited surgery training residency programs.
Fellows are taught how to design experiments, write grants and analyze statistics during the research component of training. They must become aware of the literature in surgery and oncology, current research issues, clinical methods and research presentation skills. Some interdisciplinary cancer research topics that fellows might investigate are:
- Molecular studies
- Scientific information presentation
During the clinical portion of training, fellows continue their research while gaining experience in as many different surgery and outpatient treatment situations as possible. They become knowledgeable about other non-surgical cancer treatments and medical specialties, such as chemotherapy, radiation therapy, pediatrics and immunology. Before surgeons can complete a surgical oncology fellowship, they must have significant experience in treating cancer on several parts of the body, including the:
- Esophagus and colon
- Endocrine system
- Soft tissue
Popular Career Options
Many students will continue their studies by applying for fellowship programs. Graduates of a general surgery training program may also begin a surgical career by finding employment as a:
- General surgical practitioner
- Surgical educator
- Clinical researcher
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reported in May 2018 that the mean annual wage for surgeons was $255,110. According to the BLS, physicians and surgeons employment was expected to grow by 7% between 2018 and 2028, a rate that is considered faster than average for all careers.
Continuing Education and Certification Information
After completing a residency training program, students must pass the General Surgery Qualifying Exam and the General Surgery Certifying Exam to become certified through the American Board of Surgery. Surgeons must be re-certified every ten years. In order to practice surgery, one must also pass the United States Medical Licensing Examination.
Aspiring surgeons interested in oncology will need to complete a surgery residency to become a certified surgeon before completing a surgical oncology fellowship. Graduates can expect faster-than-average job growth and high paying positions.