What is oncology?
Two decades of the 21st century have passed already, but the general understanding of terms like cancer and oncology still needs massive improvement. Not saying it is as bad as the early’ 90s! Anyhow, when we use the term cancer, we are talking about the rapid growth of cells in the part of the body under discussion. That is cancer sorted, but what is oncology? Well, the branch of medicine that deals with the study of cancer is known as oncology[i]. We are going to keep things nice and simple at this stage of discussion related to oncologic surgery, so no more than that!
What is oncologic surgery?
It is prudent to mention here that you will come across another variant of this term i.e. surgical oncology as well. Both these terms mean the same thing, so please don’t get confused. Coming towards the more important things that we need to answer, what happens in this surgery? Well, as you can guess, a surgeon makes incisions to remove the cancerous tumors from the body of the patient [ii]. In some cases, removing the entire clone of cancerous cells is a realistic feat while in other cases, the surgeon is left with no option but to remove as much as he can. This later activity on the part of an oncologic surgeon is called debulking.
How to prepare for an oncologic surgery?
There are a few important points to keep in mind when a patient is getting ready for oncologic surgery. Firstly, the patient has to abstain from drinking or eating before the surgery [iii]. The exact duration of this fasting period is specified by a doctor. Then, on the day of the operation, a consultancy meeting between the surgeon and the patient is scheduled before the surgery. To subside the side effects of anesthesia, a medicine might be prescribed, which the patient can opt for, as not to feel too drowsy later. General anesthesia is the recommended way to proceed with oncological surgery.
What happens during an oncologic surgery?
We have already talked about how oncologic surgery is focused on removing cancerous cells and tissues. But don’t be surprised if the surgeon removes a small healthy tissue from the tumorous area, commonly called the margin. That is not all though. Sometimes, lymph nodes are removed as well. You must be wondering about the purpose of these removals. Well, the removed margin and lymph nodes are sent to a pathology lab, where more about the type of cancer as well its stage can be learned. This is of course possible only if cancer has spread to the margin and lymph nodes. Good news anyway, if it has not!
How is it done?
There are two methods of conducting oncologic surgery. The first one is called open surgery. In this method, scalpels are used to make incisions. Once the incisions are made, the tumor is removed. The other method of removing cancerous cells via oncologic surgery is called laparoscopic surgery. What happens in this method? A laparoscope is a small tube, which comes attached to a small camera. Once the laparoscope is at the destined target, the oncologic surgeon can use his or her tools to remove the tumorous masses. This surgical procedure is also known as the minimally invasive surgical procedure of removing cancer cells.
What are the side effects/risks?
For one, the patients who undergo oncologic surgery are going to feel pain. There should be no mincing of words on that part! However, managing this pain with the help of painkillers and other medicines is possible. Coming towards the risks associated with oncologic surgery, well the biggest risk is that of an infection [iv]. Surgical site infections can complicate things, hence special care must be taken to minimize the chances of a possible infection. The other risk, the chances of which are significantly lower than that of an infection, is that of permanent damage to somebody’s part or organ. If the damage inflicted is too great, the patient might have to undergo another surgery of reconstructive nature.
What are the benefits?
Since the cancerous cells are removed from the body courtesy of oncologic surgery, the chance that the tumor will spread by dividing again is quite thin. However, that is not true for all cancers. Leukemic cancers, which are blood cancers, can never be cured one hundred percent unless the patient undergoes a hematopoietic stem cell transplant. Even then, the risk of cancer relapse cannot be ruled out entirely.
What happens after the surgery?
Once the procedure of an oncologic surgery is completed, the patient is taken to the care unit of the hospital. There, the patient is kept under observation until the side effects of anesthesia wear off completely. Then, the patient and his family are handed over a list of instructions about the dos and don’ts post-oncologic surgeries. On the patient’s part, he or she has to take care of the site where incisions were made. Making sure that no germs find their way through that opening is important, otherwise, one puts themselves at risk of major complications.
What should be my expectations during recovery?
The answer to this question varies from patient to patient. Some patients are overwhelmed by the happenings of oncologic surgery, so they need more in terms of emotional support. For such cancer patients, talking to therapists might not be a bad idea. Sometimes, the incision made can take longer than normal time to heal and seal properly. For that purpose, your doctor might ask you to take some medicines regularly. More often than not, the recovery after an oncologic surgery can take as much as months.
How do I interpret results?
You don’t, your pathologist does. Remember the bit about the margin and lymph nodes? Well, the lab examines those samples under the microscope and conducts all the necessary tests for biomarker identification and staging. Then, a report is composed based on the findings. This report is forwarded to your oncologic surgeon, who then tells you about the findings in your next meeting[v].