What other techniques are used in cancer surgery?

Many other types of surgical methods for treating cancer and precancerous conditions exist, and investigators continue to research new methods. Some common types of cancer surgery include:

  • Cryosurgery. During this type of surgery, your doctor uses very cold material, such as liquid nitrogen spray or a cold probe, to freeze and destroy cancer cells or cells that may become cancerous, such as irregular cells in a woman's cervix that could become cervical cancer.
  • Electrosurgery. By applying high-frequency electrical currents, your doctor can kill cancer cells, for example, in your mouth or on your skin.
  • Laser surgery. Laser surgery, used to treat many types of cancer, uses beams of high-intensity light to shrink or vaporize cancer cells.
  • Mohs surgery. Useful for removing cancer from certain sensitive areas of the skin, such as near the eye, and for assessing how deep a cancer goes, this method of surgery involves carefully removing cancer layer by layer with a scalpel. After removing a layer, your doctor evaluates it under a microscope, continuing in this manner until all the abnormal cells have been removed and the surrounding tissue shows no evidence of cancer.
  • Laparoscopic surgery. A surgeon uses a laparoscope to see inside your body without making large incisions. Instead, several small incisions are made and a tiny camera and surgical tools are inserted into your body. The surgeon watches a monitor that projects what the camera sees inside your body. The smaller incisions mean faster recovery and a reduced risk of complications. Laparoscopic surgery is used in cancer diagnosis, staging, treatment and symptom relief.
  • Robotic surgery. In robotic surgery, the surgeon sits away from the operating table and watches a screen that projects a 3-D image of the area being operated on. The surgeon uses hand controls that tell a robot how to maneuver surgical tools to perform the operation. Robotic surgery helps the surgeon operate in hard-to-reach areas.
  • Natural orifice surgery. Natural orifice surgery is currently being studied as a way to operate on organs in the abdomen without cutting through the skin. Instead, surgeons pass surgical tools through a natural body opening, such as your mouth, rectum or vagina.

    As an example, a surgeon might pass surgical tools down your throat and into your stomach during natural orifice surgery. A small incision is made in the wall of the stomach and surgical tools pass into the abdominal cavity in order to take a sample of liver tissue or remove your gallbladder.

    Natural orifice surgery is experimental, and few operations have been performed this way. Doctors hope it can reduce the risk of infection, pain and other complications of surgery.

Cancer surgery continues to evolve. Researchers are investigating other surgical techniques with a goal of less invasive procedures.

What can you expect before and after cancer surgery?

Preparation and healing from cancer surgery varies greatly based on the operation. But in general, you can expect certain similarities, including:

  • Preparation. In general, expect to undergo certain tests, such as blood tests, urine tests, X-rays and other imaging tests, in the days preceding your surgery. These tests will help your doctor assess your surgical needs, such as your blood type should you need a transfusion, and identify potential risks, such as infections, that may influence your surgery.
  • Anesthesia. If you're having surgery, you'll likely need some type of anesthetic — a medication that blocks the perception of pain. Your options for anesthesia will be based on what type of surgery you're receiving.
  • Recovery. Depending on your surgery, you may stay in the hospital for a time before going home. Your health care team will give you specific directions for your recovery, such as how to care for any wounds, what foods or activities to avoid, and what medications to take.

What are the risks of cancer surgery?

As with any surgery, cancer surgery does carry risks. What side effects you might experience after cancer surgery will depend on your specific surgery. In general, most cancer operations carry a risk of:

  • Pain. Pain is a common side effect of most operations. Some cause more pain than others do. Your health care team will tell you how to keep your pain to a minimum and will provide medications to reduce or eliminate the pain.
  • Infection. The site of your surgery can become infected. Your health care team will show you how to care for your wound after surgery. Follow this routine closely to avoid infection, which can lengthen your recovery time after surgery. Doctors treat infections most often with antibiotics.
  • Loss of organ function. In order to remove your cancer, the surgeon may need to remove an entire organ. For example, a kidney may need to be removed (nephrectomy) if you have kidney cancer.

    For some such operations, the remaining organ can function sufficiently to compensate for the loss, but in other situations you may be left with impairments. For instance, removal of a lung (pneumonectomy) may cause difficulty breathing.

  • Bleeding. All operations carry a risk of bleeding. Your surgeon will try to minimize this risk.
  • Blood clots. While you're recovering from surgery, you're at an increased risk of developing a blood clot. Though the risk is small, this complication can be serious.

    Blood clots most commonly occur in the legs and may cause some swelling and pain.

    A blood clot that breaks off and travels to a lung is called a pulmonary embolism, a dangerous and sometimes deadly condition.

    Your surgeon will take precautions to prevent blood clots from developing, such as getting you up and out of bed as soon as possible after your operation or prescribing a blood-thinning medication to reduce the risk of a clot.

  • Altered bowel and bladder function. Immediately after your surgery, you may experience difficulty having a bowel movement or emptying your bladder. This typically resolves in a few days, depending on your specific operation.

Whatever cancer treatment your doctor recommends, you're likely to feel some anxiety about your condition and the treatment process. Knowing what to expect can help. Use this information to help you ask informed questions when you meet with your doctor.

Aug. 22, 2014 See more In-depth