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Surgery to Treat Cancer

Surgery is used in several ways to help people with cancer. It may provide the best chance to stop many types of cancer. It also plays a part in diagnosing, staging, and supporting cancer treatment.

Having surgery for cancer is different for each person. It will depend on the type of surgery, the type of cancer, and the person's health. For some people, surgery is a major medical procedure with life-changing side effects. For others, surgery is quick and has few side effects. Your healthcare provider can help you know what to expect.

Different types of surgery

Several types of surgery can help people with cancer. Some surgeries are used along with other types of treatment. They include:

  • Curative surgery. This surgery takes out the cancerous tumor from the body. Surgeons use it when the tumor is limited to a certain part of the body. This type of treatment is often the main treatment. But other types of cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation, may be used before or after the surgery.

  • Preventive surgery. This surgery is used to remove tissue that does not have cancer cells but may develop into a malignant tumor. For example, polyps in the colon may be considered precancerous tissue. Surgery may be done to take them out.

  • Diagnostic surgery. This surgery helps to determine whether cells are cancerous. Diagnostic surgery is used to remove a tissue sample, called a biopsy, for testing and evaluation. The tissue samples help to confirm a diagnosis, identify the type of cancer, and determine the stage of the cancer.

  • Staging surgery. This surgery works to uncover the size of the cancer or the degree of the disease in the body.

  • Debulking surgery. This surgery takes out a part, though not all, of a cancerous tumor. It is used in certain situations when removing an entire tumor may cause damage to an organ or the body. Other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, may be used after this is done.

  • Palliative surgery. Sometimes surgery is used to treat cancer at advanced stages. It does not work to cure cancer. But it may be used to ease discomfort or to correct other problems cancer or treatment may have created.

  • Supportive surgery. Supportive surgery is like palliative surgery. It does not work to cure cancer. Instead it helps other cancer treatments work better. An example of supportive surgery is the insertion of a vascular access device, sometimes called a port, to help with treatments and to draw blood instead of putting needles in the arm. 

  • Restorative (reconstruction) surgery. Surgery is sometimes used as a follow-up to curative or other surgeries. It helps to change or restore a person’s appearance or the function of a body part. For instance, with breast cancer sometimes breast reconstruction surgery is needed to restore the shape of the affected breast.

Risks and possible side effects of surgery

Risk is a part of any surgery. Technology has made surgery a safe and reliable treatment choice, but there is always the risk of possible problems and side effects. In many cases, though, the positive effects of surgery outweigh the risks. This is 1 of the reasons why learning about your cancer and its treatment is important. The more you know about surgery for cancer, the more informed your choices will be. Talk about possible complications with your cancer care team before undergoing treatment.

Problems that may happen during or after surgery may include:

  • Damage to organs in the body

  • Blood loss or clots

  • Adverse reactions to medicine

  • Pain or discomfort

  • Infection

  • Other illnesses, such as pneumonia

Surgery methods

Several specialized surgery methods are used during cancer treatment. They include:

  • Open surgery. One larger cut (incision) is made into the skin. This lets the surgeon remove the tumor, lymph nodes, or other tissues.

  • Laparoscopic surgery. The surgeon makes several small cuts into the skin. They put a small tube with a light and camera into 1 cut and surgical tools into the other cuts. This lets the healthcare provider look inside the body and remove tissues through a small cut. Sometimes the surgeon may use a robot to help in this surgery. Because the cuts are smaller, the recovery time may be shorter than with open surgery.

  • Endoscopy. The surgeon places a flexible, lighted tube with a camera on the end into your mouth, nose, or other body opening. They then use instruments to remove tissues.

  • Cryosurgery. This method is also known as cryotherapy. It uses very cold temperatures to kill cancer cells. Cryosurgery is used most often with skin cancer and cervical cancer. Depending on whether the tumor is inside or outside the body, liquid nitrogen or argon gas is placed on the skin or in an instrument called a cryoprobe. This surgical treatment is being evaluated for several types of cancers.

  • Laser surgery. This method uses highly focused beams of light energy instead of instruments to remove very small cancers, shrink or destroy tumors, or activate medicines to kill cancer cells. Laser surgery is a very precise procedure. It can be used to treat parts of the body that are hard to reach. These include the skin, cervix, rectum, and larynx.

  • Electrosurgery. Skin cancer and oral cancer are sometimes treated with electrosurgery. This method uses a high-frequency electrical current to kill cancer cells.

  • Microscopically controlled surgery.  This surgery is useful when cancer affects delicate parts of the body, such as the skin around the eyes, nose, or mouth. Layers of skin are removed and checked under a microscope until cancerous cells can’t be found.

Online Medical Reviewer: Jessica Gotwals RN BSN MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Sabrina Felson MD
Online Medical Reviewer: Todd Gersten MD
Date Last Reviewed: 7/1/2023
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