Surgery for Cancer Treatment

Surgery is used in several ways to help people with cancer. It provides 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 every 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.

Different types of surgery

There are several types of surgery that are helpful to people with cancer. Some surgeries are used along with other types of treatment. They include:

  • Curative surgery. This surgery removes the cancerous tumor from the body. Surgeons use it when the tumor is limited to a specific area of the body. This type of treatment is often considered the primary treatment. However, 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 cancerous cells, but may develop into a malignant tumor. For example, polyps in the colon may be considered precancerous tissue. Surgery may be done to remove them.

  • 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. Laparoscopy is an example of a surgical staging procedure. This type of surgery allows the doctor to look inside the body and remove tissue samples through a small incision.

  • Debulking surgery. This surgery removes 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 to relieve discomfort or to correct other problems cancer or treatment may have created.

  • Supportive surgery. Supportive surgery is similar to palliative surgery. It does not work to cure cancer. Instead, it helps other cancer treatments work more effectively. An example of supportive surgery is the insertion of a catheter to help with treatments and to draw blood instead of putting needles in the arm. 

  • Restorative 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 example, women with breast cancer sometimes need breast reconstruction surgery to restore the shape of the affected breast.

Risks and possible side effects of surgery

Risk is a part of any surgery. Though technology has made surgery a safe and reliable treatment option, there is always the risk of possible problems and side effects. In many cases, however, the positive effects of surgery outweigh the risks. This is one 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

Other types of surgery

There are several specialized surgeries used during cancer treatment. They include:

  • Cryosurgery. This technique 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 is placed on the skin or in an instrument called a cryoprobe. It is being evaluated as a surgical treatment for several types of cancers.

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

  • Electrosurgery. Skin cancer and oral cancer are sometimes treated with electrosurgery. This technique 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 looked at under a microscope until cancerous cells can’t be found.