Cancer surgery: physical removal of the cancer

The prospect of cancer surgery can make you feel anxious. Put your mind at ease by learning more about cancer surgery and how and why it’s used.

By Mayo Clinic staff

Cancer surgery is a common part of cancer diagnosis and treatment. This is a look at how surgery is used to care for people with cancer.

How is cancer surgery used?

Common reasons you might have cancer surgery include:

  • Cancer prevention. For some types of cancer, it is possible to remove an organ before cancer develops. In this way, surgery helps prevent cancer.
  • diagnosis. Surgery may be used to obtain a piece of tissue for testing. The sample is tested in a lab to see if it is cancerous. Other tests might look at the genetic makeup of the cells. The results help your health care team plan your treatment.
  • staging Cancer surgery can show the size of the cancer and whether it has spread. This information is used to determine the stage of the cancer. The stage of the cancer tells your provider how serious your condition is and whether you need aggressive treatment.
  • Primary treatment. For many types of cancer, surgery is the main treatment.
  • volume reduction Sometimes surgery cannot remove all of the cancer. A surgeon can remove as much as possible. This is called volume reduction.
  • Relieve symptoms or side effects. Surgery is also used to improve your quality of life. For example, it can eliminate pain caused by cancer pressing on a nerve or bone. It could be used to remove cancer that is blocking the intestine.

Surgery is often used with other cancer treatments. These treatments may include chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and other treatments. The treatments that are best for you depend on the type of cancer you have, its stage, and your general health.

How is cancer surgery typically performed?

When possible, the goal of cancer surgery is to remove all of the cancer from the body. To do this, the surgeon uses cutting tools to remove the cancer and some of the healthy tissue around it.

The surgeon may also remove some lymph nodes in the area. The lymph nodes are checked to see if they contain cancer cells. If the cancer spreads to the lymph nodes, there is a chance that the cancer may spread to other parts of the body.

What other techniques are used in cancer surgery?

Many other types of operations can be used to treat cancer. Researchers continue to search for new methods. Some other types of cancer surgery include:

  • cryosurgery This surgery uses very cold material, such as a liquid nitrogen spray or a cold probe. The cold freezes and destroys cancer cells.
  • Electrosurgery. In this type of surgery, an electrical current is used to destroy cancer cells.
  • Laser surgery. Laser surgery uses beams of light to shrink or kill cancer cells.
  • Mohs surgery. This method carefully removes the cancer layer by layer. As each thin layer is removed, it is studied under a microscope to look for signs of cancer. This is repeated until all the cancer is removed. Mohs surgery is used for cancers in sensitive areas of the skin, such as around the eye.
  • Laparoscopic surgery. This minimally invasive surgery uses several small cuts in the body instead of one large cut. A tiny camera and surgical tools are inserted through the cuts. A monitor shows what the camera sees. The surgeon uses this to guide the tools to remove the cancer. Smaller cuts mean you get better faster and may have fewer problems after surgery.
  • robotic surgery. During robotic surgery, the surgeon sits away from the operating table. They look at a screen that shows a 3D image of the area being operated on. The surgeon uses hand controls that tell a robot how to move surgical tools to perform the operation. Robotic surgery helps the surgeon operate on hard-to-reach areas. People who have this type of surgery may get better faster and have fewer problems after surgery.
  • Natural orifice surgery. Natural orifice surgery is a way to operate on organs in the abdomen without cutting the skin. Instead, surgeons pass surgical tools through a natural opening in the body, such as the mouth, rectum, or vagina.

    For example, a surgeon might insert surgical tools down your throat and into your stomach. A small cut is made in the stomach wall. Surgical tools are then moved to the area around the stomach. The tools could take a sample of liver tissue or remove the gallbladder.

    Natural orifice surgery is a new type of surgery. Surgeons hope it can reduce the risk of infection, pain, and other problems after surgery.

Cancer surgery continues to change. Researchers are looking at other types of less invasive surgery.

What can you expect before and after cancer surgery?

How you prepare for and heal from cancer surgery depends on the operation. In general, you can expect certain things to be the same, including:

  • getting ready Expect to undergo some tests before surgery. These may include blood tests, urine tests, X-rays, and other imaging tests. The results help your surgeon plan your procedure. The results can show if you have any conditions that might make surgery risky.
  • anesthesia If you are having surgery, you will likely need some type of anesthesia to block the pain. The type of anesthesia you have will be based on the type of operation.
  • Recovery. Depending on your surgery, you may be in the hospital for a while before going home. Your health care team will give you specific instructions for your recovery. They will talk about how to care for any wounds, what foods or activities to avoid, and what medications to take. Make sure you understand what you can and cannot do after surgery. Ask for help if you care for other family members, such as children or older relatives.

What are the risks of cancer surgery?

The risks of surgery will depend on the type of operation you have. In general, most cancer operations have a risk of:

  • Pain. Pain is a common side effect of most operations. Some cause more pain than others. Your health care team will tell you how to keep the pain down. They will also give you medicine to reduce pain.
  • infection. Your health care team will show you how to care for your wound after surgery. Follow these instructions to avoid infection. Infections can make recovery time longer. If you get an infection, your provider may give you medicine to fight the infection.
  • Loss of organ function. To remove your cancer, the provider may need to remove an entire organ. For example, a kidney may need to be removed if you have kidney cancer.

    For some of these operations, the remaining organ may function well enough to feel like it did before surgery. In other situations, you may have some problems after surgery. For example, removing a lung can make it hard to breathe.

  • fatigue. After surgery, you may not have much energy. You may have trouble concentrating. This is typical and will improve.
  • bleeding. All operations have a risk of bleeding. Tell your provider what medications you are taking. Some medications can increase the risk of bleeding.
  • blood clots Recovery from surgery puts you at higher risk of developing a blood clot. Although the risk is small, this can be serious.

    Your health care team will take steps to reduce the risk of blood clots. You will be up and out of bed as soon as possible after the operation. They may also recommend a blood-thinning medication to reduce the risk of a clot.

  • Altered bowel and bladder function. Right after surgery, you may have trouble passing stool or urinating. This usually improves after a few days, depending on your operation.

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