Surgery to Treat and Manage Cancer

Medically Reviewed by Sabrina Felson, MD on November 11, 2022
4 min read

If you have cancer, you may have surgery at some point. Sometimes, it can completely treat the disease. Other times, your doctor will use it to relieve pain or other problems related to it. You may need more than one type of operation. Which kind of surgery, and how many procedures you have, depend on several things:

  • The type of cancer you have
  • How advanced your cancer is
  • Your medical team’s suggested treatment plan
  • If you’ll need reconstructive surgery

Keep in mind that surgery treats only the part of your body that has the cancer. This means you can’t use it for blood cancers like leukemia, or for other cancers that have spread.

Sometimes surgery will be the only treatment you need. But most often, you will also have other cancer treatments.

Diagnostic: This is also known as a biopsy. It helps your doctor know if a tumor is cancerous. Your surgeon will cut into your skin to remove some of the suspicious tissue. There are two main types:

  • Incisional, which removes just a piece of the area
  • Excisional, which removes the entire thing (for example, a skin mole or a breast lump)

Your doctor will then send it to a lab, where another doctor known as a pathologist looks at the tissue under a microscope to see if it’s cancerous.

Staging: This allows your cancer specialist to figure out the size of your tumor. Usually, your surgeon will also remove the lymph nodes -- tiny bean-shaped organs that help fight infection -- near the tumor as well. This will help them find out how much your cancer has spread.

Once they have these results, your medical team can use them to figure out the best treatment for you, as well as your prognosis (chances for a full recovery). Laparoscopy is an often-used staging procedure. This is when your surgeon puts a camera through a small cut to examine a part of your body, such as an ovary, and remove tissue.

Curative: This operation removes an entire tumor and some of the healthy tissue that surrounds it. An example of this is the removal of the thyroid gland for thyroid cancer. Sometimes, it’s the only treatment you need. Other times, the cancer has spread past that one area, so you’ll need other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.

Debulking: This removes only part of a cancer tumor. This is done when taking out the entire tumor may damage an organ or the whole body. Instead, doctors take out as much of the tumor as they can before they use other treatments like radiation therapy or chemotherapy. It’s often used for advanced ovarian cancer and some lymphomas. The idea is that if at least part of the tumor is gone before these other treatments, they’ll work better.

Palliative: This type isn’t a cure, but a way to ease symptoms of an advanced cancer. It can greatly improve your quality of life. Examples include surgery to relieve pressure on a nerve or your spinal cord, or remove a growth that’s blocked your intestines. Doctors also use it to relieve pain that doesn’t respond to medication.

Supportive: These procedures help make it easier for you to get other types of cancer treatment. For example, your doctor can put a catheter -- a thin, flexible tube -- into a vein and connect it to a port under your skin to give you medication. Or they can insert a feeding tube directly into your stomach to deliver drugs and nutrition if your cancer or its treatments make it tough to eat.

Reconstructive: This type of operation happens after the main one. It helps restore your body’s appearance or function. Examples include breast reconstruction after you have a mastectomy, or putting in tissue flaps or plastic materials after surgery for head and neck cancers. Your doctor can do this at the same time as your initial operation, or afterward, once you’ve healed and received treatments like chemotherapy or radiation therapy.

Preventive: Doctors don’t just operate to remove a cancer -- it can also be a way to lower your chances of getting it. Women with a strong family history of breast or ovarian cancer and mutations in the BRCA1 and BRCA2 cancer genes may decide to have surgery to remove their breasts, ovaries, or both. This can make it less likely that they’ll get breast cancer by about 90%. Another example is the removal of precancerous polyps in your colon during a colonoscopy to help prevent colon cancer.