Cancer Surgery : Physically Removing Cancer

Cancer surgery — an operation to remove part of your body to diagnose or treat cancer — remains the foundation of cancer treatment. Most people with cancer will have some type of surgery. The main goal is to remove tumors, tissue, or areas with cancer cells, such as lymph nodes. Doctors also may do it to diagnose the disease or find out how serious it is. In many cases, surgery offers the best chance of getting rid of the disease, especially if it hasn’t spread to other parts of the body.

How is Cancer Surgery Used in Treatment?

Common reasons you might undergo cancer surgery include:

  • Cancer Prevention. If you have a high risk of developing cancer in certain tissues or organs, your doctor may recommend removing those tissues or organs before cancer develops.

    For example, if you are born with a genetic condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, your doctor may use cancer surgery to remove your colon and rectum because you have a high risk of developing colon cancer.

  • Diagnosis. Your doctor may use a form of cancer surgery to remove all or part of a tumor — allowing the tumor to be studied under a microscope — to determine whether the growth is cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign).
  • Staging. Cancer surgery helps your doctor define how advanced your cancer is, called its stage. Surgery allows your doctor to evaluate the size of your tumor and determine whether it’s traveled to your lymph nodes. Additional tests might be necessary to gauge your cancer’s stage.
  • Primary Treatment. For many tumors, cancer surgery is the best chance for a cure, especially if the cancer is localized and hasn’t spread.
  • Debulking. When it’s not possible to remove all of a cancerous tumor — for example, because doing so may severely harm an organ — your doctor may remove as much as possible (debulking) in order to make chemotherapy or radiation more effective.
  • Relieving symptoms or side effects. Sometimes surgery is used to improve your quality of life rather than to treat the cancer itself — for example, to relieve pain caused by a tumor that’s pressing on a nerve or bone or to remove a tumor that’s blocking your intestine.

Surgery is often combined with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Whether you opt to undergo additional cancer treatment depends on your type of cancer, its stage and your overall health status.

What are the Risks of Cancer Surgery?

What side effects you might experience after cancer surgery will depend on your specific surgery. In general, most cancer operations carry a risk of:

  • Pain. Pain is a common side effect of most operations. Some cause more pain than others do. Your health care team will tell you how to keep your pain to a minimum and will provide medications to reduce or eliminate the pain.
  • Infection. The site of your surgery can become infected. Your health care team will show you how to care for your wound after surgery. Follow this routine closely to avoid infection, which can lengthen your recovery time after surgery. In the rare instance where an infection does occur, your doctor will likely treat this with antibiotics.
  • Loss of Organ Function. In order to remove your cancer, the surgeon may need to remove an entire organ. For example, a kidney may need to be removed (nephrectomy) if you have kidney cancer.
  • Bleeding. All operations carry a risk of bleeding. Your surgeon will try to minimize this risk.
  • Blood Clots. While you’re recovering from surgery, you’re at an increased risk of developing a blood clot. Though the risk is small, this complication can be serious. Blood clots most commonly occur in the legs and may cause some swelling and pain. 
  • Altered Bowel and Bladder Function. Immediately after your surgery, you may experience difficulty having a bowel movement or emptying your bladder. This typically resolves in a few days, depending on your specific operation.

Whatever cancer treatment your doctor recommends, you’re likely to feel some anxiety about your condition and the treatment process. Knowing what to expect can help. Use this information to help you ask informed questions when you meet with your doctor.

What to Expect

It is common for people to feel nervous or worried as their surgery approaches. Knowing what to expect before, during, and after the procedure can help you prepare and feel more at ease. You will likely receive some type of anesthesia during surgery. After you receive anesthesia, your surgical team will clean and shave the area of your body where surgery is needed. This helps reduce the risk of infection. After surgery, your surgical team will move you to the recovery area. Consider bringing a family member or friend on the day of surgery.

Is It the Best Treatment?

Surgery is the oldest cancer treatment and is still an excellent cancer therapy option. Besides removing the cancerous mass, surgery can also help to confirm a diagnosis and identify the cancer stage — how advanced it is. While surgery is an effective cancer treatment for many types of cancer, the location of the cancer and its growth pattern will determine whether surgery is the most effective approach.

Cancer has not Metastasized

If the cancer has not metastasized, surgery may cure the person. However, it is not always possible to be sure before surgery whether the cancer has or has not spread. During surgery, doctors often remove lymph nodes near the tumor (sentinel nodes) to see whether the cancer has spread to them. If so, the person may be at a high risk of having the cancer recur and may need chemotherapy or radiation therapy after surgery to prevent a recurrence.

Side Effects

As with any type of surgery, cancer surgery offers its own potential risks and side effects, depending on your type of cancer, your type of surgery, and where the surgery is performed. There are some general risks that go along with any surgery, including bleeding, infection, and reaction to anesthesia. Following any surgery, it’s common to experience some pain, but this can be managed with medication and a period of rest, relaxation, and recovery.