How does surgery help treat cancer?

Surgery is a local treatment. It treats only the part of the body with cancer. It is not used for cancers that have spread or for blood cancers. Surgery can:

  • Remove the entire tumor.
  • Debulk a tumor, which removes part of a tumor when it is not possible to remove the whole thing. This can help other treatments work better.
  • Ease cancer symptoms by removing tumors that are painful.

Sometimes, surgery is all that is needed. Most of the time, though, people will have surgery as well as other treatments.

How should I prepare for surgery?

A nurse may call to let you know what you need to do before surgery. You can also:

  • Find out if you need certain tests or exams before surgery, such as a blood test, chest x-ray or electrocardiogram (ECG).
  • Follow instructions for eating and drinking. Ahead of surgery, you may need to eat a diet high in protein and calories if you are weak or underweight. But a doctor or nurse will likely tell you not to eat or drink before surgery.
  • Get supplies to care for wounds after surgery. You may need antiseptic ointment and bandages.

What happens during surgery?

Surgeons often use scalpels to cut your body to remove the cancer. Scalpels are small, thin knives. Depending on your cancer, surgeons will cut through skin, muscles and sometimes bone. Surgery can be open or minimally invasive.

  • Open surgery involves one large cut to remove the tumor, some healthy tissue and perhaps some nearby lymph nodes.
  • Minimally invasive surgery involves a few small cuts, and a surgeon inserts a long, thin tube with a tiny camera into one of them. This tube is a laparoscope, allowing the camera to project images from inside onto a screen. This way the surgeon can see what needs to be done. Special tools are inserted into the other small cuts to remove the tumor and some healthy tissue.
  • There are some types of surgeries that do not involve cuts with scalpels:
  • Cryosurgery or cryotherapy uses extreme cold to destroy abnormal tissue. It is used to treat early-stage skin cancer, retinoblastoma and precancerous skin and cervix growths.
  • Laser treatments use a powerful light to cut through tissue. Lasers can work well on small areas, which can work well for precise surgeries. They can also shrink or destroy tumors or growths that may turn into cancer. Lasers are usually used to treat tumors on the surface of the body or on the inside lining of internal organs. They might be used to treat basal cell carcinoma, vaginal, esophageal and non-small cell lung cancer.
  • Hyperthermia uses high temperatures to damage and kill cancer cells. This can also make the cells more sensitive to radiation and certain chemotherapy drugs.
  • Photodynamic therapy uses drugs that respond to a certain type of light. The light causes the drugs to kill nearby cancer cells.

Will Surgery Hurt?

To stop you from feeling pain, you will have anesthesia. There are three types of anesthesia:

  • Local causes you to lose feeling in one small part of the body.
  • Regional causes you to lose feeling in one part of the body, such as an arm.
  • General stops you from feeling and causes a complete loss of awareness, much like a deep sleep.

Even with anesthesia, cuts can be painful. It takes time to recover and heal.

What can I expect during my recovery from surgery?

There is usually pain in the part of the body where the surgery took place. Your doctors and nurses can help you control pain, so it is important to talk to them about how you feel. Minimally invasive surgery involves smaller cuts, so it takes less time to recover from this than from open surgery. Recovery time depends on the extent of the surgery. It also depends on the kind of anesthesia you had, since general anesthesia can take some time to recover from. If you have an active job, you will need to talk to your doctor about how much time off you will need.

What other questions should I ask about my surgery?

To help you plan, other questions you can ask your doctor include:

  • How long will my surgery take?
  • How long will I be in the hospital?
  • Who will perform my surgery?
  • Who will be in the room during my surgery?
  • Is this surgery going to work?
  • How will my life be different after the surgery?