Cancer surgery: Physically removing cancer

The prospect of cancer surgery may make you feel anxious. Help put your mind at ease by learning more about cancer surgery and how and why it's used. By Mayo Clinic Staff

Cancer surgery — an operation to repair or remove part of your body to diagnose or treat cancer — remains the foundation of cancer treatment. Your doctor may use cancer surgery to achieve any number of goals, from diagnosing and treating your cancer to relieving the symptoms it causes. Cancer surgery may be your only treatment, or it may be supplemented with other treatments, such as radiation, chemotherapy, hormone therapy and biological therapy.

How is cancer surgery used in treatment?

Cancer surgery may be used to achieve one or more goals. Common reasons you might undergo cancer surgery include:

  • Cancer prevention. If there's reason to believe that you have a high risk of developing cancer in certain tissues or organs, your doctor may recommend removing those tissues or organs before cancer develops. For example, if you have a genetic condition called familial adenomatous polyposis, your doctor may use cancer surgery to remove your colon and rectum because you have a high risk of developing colon cancer.
  • Diagnosis. Your doctor may use a form of cancer surgery to remove all or part of a tumor — allowing the tumor to be studied under a microscope — to determine whether the growth is cancerous (malignant) or noncancerous (benign).
  • Staging. Cancer surgery helps your doctor define how advanced your cancer is, called its stage. Surgery allows your doctor to evaluate the size of your tumor and determine whether it's traveled to your lymph nodes. Additional tests might be necessary to gauge your cancer's stage.
  • Primary treatment. For many tumors, cancer surgery is the best chance for a cure, especially if the cancer is localized and hasn't spread. If there's evidence that your cancer hasn't spread, your doctor may recommend surgery to remove the cancerous tumor as your primary treatment.
  • Debulking. When it's not possible to remove all of a cancerous tumor — for example, because doing so may severely harm an organ — your doctor may remove as much as possible (debulking) in order to make chemotherapy or radiation more effective.
  • Relieving symptoms or side effects. Sometimes surgery is used to improve your quality of life rather than to treat the cancer itself — for example, to relieve pain caused by a tumor that's pressing on a nerve or bone or to remove a tumor that's blocking your intestine.

Surgery is often combined with other cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy and radiation. Whether you opt to undergo additional cancer treatment depends on your type of cancer and its stage.

How is cancer surgery traditionally performed?

Traditionally, the primary purpose of cancer surgery is to cure your cancer by removing all of it from your body. The surgeon usually does this by cutting into your body and removing the cancer along with some surrounding healthy tissue to ensure that all of the cancer is removed. Your surgeon may also remove some lymph nodes in the area to determine if the cancer has spread. This helps your doctor assess the chance of your being cured, as well as the need for further treatment.

In the case of breast cancer surgery, your doctor may remove the cancer by removing the whole breast (mastectomy) or by removing only the portion of your breast that contains the cancer and some of the surrounding tissue (lumpectomy). In the case of lung cancer surgery, your doctor may remove part of one lung (lobectomy) or the entire lung (pneumonectomy) in an attempt to ensure that all the cancer has been removed.

Aug. 20, 2011 See more In-depth