Surgical oncology

Surgical oncology involves examining, removing or repairing cancerous tissue, and oncological surgery can be carried out at various points along the patient treatment pathway.

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In preventive or prophylactic care, surgery is carried out before the cancer develops.  In this particular case, the oncology surgeon will remove the tissue. Although the tissue is not yet cancerous, genetic screening will have revealed an abnormality in a gene, which may in turn cause cancer (in some cases of genetic mutation, prophylactic mastectomy and/or bilateral ovariectomy may be considered).


Surgery can also be used to diagnose cancer, determine its stage and check the extent to which it has spread in the body. This usually involves a biopsy, i.e. a tissue sample, which is then analysed under a microscope by a pathologist.

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For over a decade, Swiss Oncology Network has set its sights on one overriding goal: to offer everyone living with cancer privileged access to treatments and the best and safest treatment strategies for their specific illness.

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Tumour ablation

The main aim of oncological surgery is tumour ablation, i.e. to remove the tumour or cancerous tissue. The earlier the tumour is removed and the more localised it is (located in one place (primary tumour) without spreading to other parts of the body (metastasis)), the more effective the surgery will be. In this type of procedure, the surgeon will also remove a small piece of normal tissue around the tumour – known as the ‘surgical margin’ – to ensure that no cancer cells remain.

To minimise damage to healthy tissue while ensuring that all cancer cells are removed, the surgeon may perform a biopsy to find the sentinel ganglion (the first lymph node to which the cancer is likely to spread from its original location). If there are no cancer cells in the sentinel ganglion, there will be no need for lymph node dissection.

Lymph node dissection

For some types of cancer, it may be necessary to remove the lymph nodes located near the tumour, which is referred to as lymph node dissection. These removed lymph nodes are then analysed to determine if they contain cancer cells, which could form new tumours or spread to other parts of the body.

Tumour reduction

In some cases, it is not possible to remove the entire tumour and so tumour reduction is performed (‘cytoreductive surgery’), which may increase the effectiveness of systemic therapy or adjuvant radiotherapy.

Relieving the symptoms

Palliative surgery or septic surgery can relieve symptoms and thus improve the patient’s quality of life (e.g. relieve pain, bypass a blocked organ, etc.). The main objective of this type of surgery is often to control symptoms (and thus improve quality of life) rather than to treat the disease.

Reduced risk of recurrence

In some cases, in addition to removing the tumour with a healthy tissue margin, the surgeon may also remove other structures (e.g. muscles, nerves, normal lymph nodes) in the vicinity of the tumour. This procedure (radical surgery), as demonstrated by various studies and research findings, reduces the risk of reappearance or recurrence (e.g. radical mastectomy: breast removal (whole), pectoral muscles and underarm lymph nodes).

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