Surgery, when used to treat cancer, is a procedure in which a surgeon removes cancer from your body. Surgeons are medical doctors with special training in surgery.
Surgeons often use small, thin knives, called scalpels, and other sharp tools to cut your body during surgery. Surgery often requires cuts through skin, muscles, and sometimes bone. After surgery, these cuts can be painful and take some time to recover from.
Anesthesia keeps you from feeling pain during surgery. Anesthesia refers to drugs or other substances that cause you to lose feeling or awareness. There are three types of anesthesia:
There are other ways of performing surgery that do not involve cuts with scalpels. Some of these include:
For more information, see the fact sheet Cryosurgery in Cancer Treatment.
Lasers are most often used to treat tumors on the surface of the body or on the inside lining of internal organs. Examples include basal cell carcinoma, cervical changes that might turn into cancer, and cervical, vaginal, esophageal, and non-small cell lung cancer.
For more information, see Lasers in Cancer Treatment.
For more information, see Hyperthermia in Cancer Treatment.
For more information, see Photodynamic Therapy for Cancer.
There are many types of surgery. The types differ based on the purpose of the surgery, the part of the body that requires surgery, the amount of tissue to be removed, and, in some cases, what the patient prefers.
Surgery may be open or minimally invasive.
Because minimally invasive surgery requires smaller cuts, it takes less time to recover from than open surgery.
To learn about the type of surgery that may be used to treat your cancer, see the PDQ® cancer treatment summaries for adult and childhood cancers.
Many people with cancer are treated with surgery. Surgery works best for solid tumors that are contained in one area. It is a local treatment, meaning that it treats only the part of your body with the cancer. It is not used for leukemia (a type of blood cancer) or for cancers that have spread.
Sometimes surgery will be the only treatment you need. But most often, you will also have other cancer treatments.
Depending on your type of cancer and how advanced it is, surgery can be used to:
Surgeons are highly trained and will do everything they can to prevent problems during surgery. Even so, sometimes problems do occur. Common problems are:
Your doctor or nurse can help you manage pain after surgery. Talk with your doctor or nurse before surgery about ways to control pain. After surgery, tell them if your pain is not controlled.
For more information, see our booklet, Pain Control .
Other risks of surgery include bleeding, damage to nearby tissues, and reactions to the anesthesia. Talk to your doctor about possible risks for the type of surgery you will have.
The cost of surgery depends on many factors, including:
Talk with your health insurance company about what services it will pay for. Most insurance plans pay for surgery to treat cancer. To learn more, talk with the business office of the clinic or hospital where you go for treatment. If you need financial assistance, there are organizations that may be able to help. To find such organizations, go to the NCI database, Organizations that Offer Support Services and search for "financial assistance." Or call toll-free 1-800-4-CANCER (1-800-422-6237) to ask for information on organizations that may help.
Where you have surgery depends on:
You can have outpatient surgery in a doctor’s office, surgery center, or hospital. Outpatient means that you do not spend the night. Or, you may have surgery in the hospital and stay the night. How many nights you stay will depend on the type of surgery you have and how quickly you recover.
Before surgery, a nurse may call you to tell you how to prepare. He or she may tell you about tests and exams you need to have before the surgery. Common tests that you may need, if you have not had them lately, are:
You may not be able to eat or drink for a certain period of time before the surgery. It is important to follow the instructions about eating and drinking. If you don’t, your surgery may need to be rescheduled.
You may also be asked to have supplies on hand for taking care of your wounds after surgery. Supplies might include antiseptic ointment and bandages.
Once you are under anesthesia, the surgeon removes the cancer, usually along with some healthy tissue around it. Removing this healthy tissue helps improve the chances that all the cancer has been removed.
Sometimes, the surgeon might also remove lymph nodes or other tissues near the tumor. These tissues will be checked under a microscope to see if the cancer has spread. Knowing if the nearby tissue contains cancer will help your doctors suggest the best treatment plan for you after surgery.
Once you are ready to go home after surgery, the nurse will tell you how to take care of yourself. He or she will explain:
You will have at least one more visit with the surgeon a week or two after you go home. For more complex surgeries, you may need to see the surgeon more often. You may have stitches removed, and the surgeon will check to make sure you are healing as you should.
Surgery increases your need for good nutrition. If you are weak or underweight, you may need to eat a high-protein, high-calorie diet before surgery.
Some types of surgery may change how your body uses food. Surgery can also affect eating if you have surgery of the mouth, stomach, intestines, or throat. If you have trouble eating after surgery, you may be given nutrients through a feeding tube or IV (through a needle directly into a vein).
Talk with a dietitian for help with eating problems caused by surgery. For more information about coping with eating problems see the booklet Eating Hints.
You will need to take time off from work to have and recover from surgery. You may need only 1 day or many weeks. How long you need to recover depends on many factors, such as:
Ask your doctor how long you will need to recover from your surgery. If you expect a longer recovery time, talk with your employer to find out if you can take medical leave. Check to make sure your health insurance will cover costs if you are on medical leave and not working for a time.
CancerHelp Online® is a patient education program of The CancerHelp Institute, official Content Distribution Partner of the National Cancer Institute (NCI).