How does cancer surgery work?

Cancer surgery works to remove cancerous cells from the body, so the cancer cannot continue to spread. There are several different types of cancer surgery.

For any surgery, you will have anesthesia, so you don’t feel anything. Depending on where the surgery is done on your body, you may have local or regional anesthesia that numbs a certain part of your body, or general anesthesia that puts you into a deep sleep.

The surgery may be done in the hospital, an outpatient surgery center, or the doctor’s office or clinic. It depends on the kind of surgery and how complex it is.

When is cancer surgery used?

Surgery is used primarily when the cancer is in one place and can be removed safely.  

For some cancer (like blood cancers), surgery is not an option because it’s not possible to remove the cancer that way. Or it may not be possible to remove the cancer without damaging the body. Sometimes the surgeon will be able to remove part, but not all, of a tumor without damaging the body. 

While cancer presents itself differently in every body, surgery is often used to treat: breast cancer, colorectal cancer, skin cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and gynecological cancers (cervical, uterine, and ovarian). 

Types of Cancer Surgery

The most common types of cancer surgery are described here. The type of surgery is dependent on the personalized treatment plan for the specific type of cancer.

Open Surgery

The most common type of cancer surgery—is done by cutting into the body with a scalpel (a small knife) and other tools.


Uses extreme cold to destroy cells, is another option. This is used for some minor skin cancers or pre-cancerous growths on the skin or cervix.

Laser Surgery

Uses a powerful beam of light to cut through tissue or destroy tumors. It is used to treat brain cancers or cancers on the lining of organs or on the skin.

Laparoscopic Surgery

Done without having to make a large incision in the body. Instead, the surgeon makes a few small cuts and uses a camera to see inside the body. The surgeon inserts the camera in one cut and surgical instruments in other cuts.

Specialized Cancer Surgery

  • Endoscopic biopsy. An endoscope is a small, flexible tube that can be easily inserted into the body without large cuts (incisions). It allows doctors to see inside the body using a light and video camera. The doctor uses small surgical tools on the endoscope to perform the biopsy.   
  • Surgical biopsy. This requires cutting through the skin to reach the tissue sample. In some cases, only a small sample is removed (incisional biopsy). In others, a lump or tumor is completely removed (excisional biopsy).  

What are the risks or side effects of cancer surgery?

Any surgery, including cancer surgery, comes with some risks.


Any time the body is opened up, infections can happen. Surgeons are very careful about keeping things sterile and clean during surgery, but there is always a chance of infection. 


You will likely have some soreness and pain as you recover from surgery. Your care team can help you manage the pain.  

Bleeding and Blood Clots

Sometimes the cuts in the body continue to bleed after surgery is over, which can make recovery take longer. Sometimes the body forms a blood clot where the surgery was done, and the clot blocks an important blood vessel to the lungs, heart, or brain. 

Damage to another body part

Another body part can be accidentally damaged during surgery. For example, the bladder can be damaged during gynecological surgery because it is so close to the uterus and ovaries. 

Reaction to anesthesia

Some people don’t react well to anesthesia and may have temporary nausea and vomiting.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can cancer be treated without surgery?

Every individual’s treatment plan is different, because cancer presents itself differently in every body. Some cancers can be treated without surgery. Others may need surgery, or ever surgery plus chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Your doctors and medical team at Intermountain Cancer Center will discuss all your treatment options and make the best plan for you.