Surgery is a cancer treatment used to remove some or all of the cancer. Many cancers are treated with surgery alone or together with other treatments, like chemotherapy and radiation. Examples of cancers that use surgery as a treatment include breast cancer, colorectal cancer, skin cancer, prostate cancer, thyroid cancer, and gynecological cancers (cervical, uterine, and ovarian).
Surgery works best as a cancer treatment when the cancer is in one place and can be removed safely. For some cancer, surgery is not an option because it’s not possible to remove the cancer that way, like blood cancers. 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.
Any surgery, including cancer surgery, comes with some risks.
- Infection. Anytime 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.
- Pain. You will likely have some soreness and pain as you recover from surgery.
- 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 nausea and vomiting.
Cancer surgery can be the best way to remove a lot of the cancer at one time. Even if the surgeon can’t remove the whole tumor, other treatments like radiation and chemotherapy work better when the tumor is smaller and there is less cancer to treat.
Preparation for surgery depends on the type of surgery you have.
The doctor or nurse will tell you how to prepare for your surgery. Most likely, you will have instructions about not eating or drinking before the surgery. The doctor may also tell you to stop taking some of your medicines or vitamins before surgery. Follow all of the instructions you get for preparing for surgery.
Make a plan for the day of surgery and after
Have a plan for who will take you to the surgery and who will take you home, even for a minor surgery.
Plan for who will help you in the days following your surgery. The week after you get home is the most important time after surgery. If all goes well, you’ll be on your way to a speedy recovery. If not, you may be making a return trip to the hospital.
Plan for any changes to your living space. Will you be able to climb stairs after your surgery? Will you be able to use the bathroom as is, or do you need a grip bar or other equipment? Do you have the food you need or a plan for someone to bring meals? If you need physical therapy after surgery, where will you do it?
Most cancer surgery is done by cutting into the body with a scalpel (a small knife) and other tools. Some cancer surgery is done instead by cryosurgery, which uses extreme cold to destroy cells. 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 cancers on the lining of organs or on the skin. Some cancer surgery is done with a scope (a thin tube with a camera and small surgery tools) to remove cancer or growths that might be cancer. This is used, for example, in a colonoscopy (for the colon) or in a hysteroscopy (for the uterus).
Surgery done by cutting can be either open surgery or minimally invasive surgery.
- Open surgery. The surgeon makes one large cut to open up the body.
- Minimally invasive surgery, or laparoscopic (lap-er-uh-skop-ik) surgery. 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. These smaller cuts usually heal faster than the large cut of open surgery.
You will have anesthesia (an-uhs-thee-zhuh) so you don’t feel the surgery. 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.
The doctor will follow up with you to tell you how the surgery went and how much cancer was removed. The timing will depend on the type of surgery.
For most cancers, you will have some follow up treatment after surgery. Your doctor will talk with you about your treatment options and make a treatment plan.
Recovery time will depend on the surgery and how invasive it was. With some simple surgeries, like those done for some skin cancers, you can get back to your daily activities right away. With more invasive surgeries, you may need some time to heal and some help with managing the pain after surgery. Be sure to ask your doctor about what to expect during recovery from your surgery.