Surgery is often used as a treatment for cancer—and in fact, it is the oldest form of cancer treatment. While surgery in many cases offers patients their best chance at beating cancer, it is also used in diagnosing, staging and supporting other cancer treatments. In addition, there is also surgery for cancer prevention. The effects of and prognosis for cancer surgery depend on the patient and the type of cancer. Sometimes, there is a quick surgery followed by few side effects, while other times, surgery can come with life-threatening complications. Patients considering cancer surgery should talk with their doctor about what their particular surgery entails.
There are several different kinds of cancer surgery. These include:
- Curative surgery: In this surgery, the cancerous tumor or growth is removed from the body. It’s used when the tumor is localized to a specific area, and is often considered the primary method of treatment, though other treatments, including radiation and/or chemotherapy, may also be used.
- Preventative surgery: This surgery removes tissue that, though it does not contain cancerous cells, may develop into a malignant tumor down the line—for instance, polyps in the colon.
- Diagnostic surgery: This surgery, which helps doctors determine whether cells are cancerous, involves the removal of a tissue sample for biopsy, which can identify both the type and stage of cancer.
- Staging surgery: This surgery seeks to determine the extent of the cancer.
- Debulking surgery: In this procedure, the surgery removes a portion of a cancerous tumor, after which chemotherapy and radiation may be used. It is most often used when removing the whole tumor may cause damage to an organ or the body.
- Palliative surgery: This is surgery for symptom relief in patients whose cancer is in an advanced stage. It cannot cure the disease, but it may help relieve discomfort or correct other problems that cancer or cancer treatment may have caused.
- Supportive surgery: This type of surgery is, like palliative surgery, not designed to cure cancer, but rather to help other cancer treatments work more effectively. For instance, a supportive surgery be involve the insertion of a catheter to help with treatments and draw blood, so the patient doesn’t have to have needles put in his or her arms all the time.
- Restorative surgery: Sometimes used as a follow-up to other cancer surgeries, restorative surgery is used to change or restore a person’s appearance or the function of a body part—for example, breast reconstruction surgery for women who’ve undergone breast cancer surgery.
- Cryosurgery: This procedure uses very cold temperatures to kill cancer cells, and is most often used to treat skin and cervical cancer, though it is also being evaluated for use with other types of cancer.
- Laser surgery: Laser surgery uses laser beams instead of instruments to remove small cancers, shrink or destroy tumors or activate drugs that kill cancer cells, all without damaging the surrounding tissue. It is a very precise technique that can treat cancer in hard-to-reach areas of the body.
- Electrosurgery: This technique uses high-frequency electrical currents to kill cancer cells, most often skin cancer and oral cancer.
- Microscopically controlled surgery: In this procedure, layers of skin are removed and examined under a microscope until cancer cells are no longer detected, and it’s useful for cancer affecting delicate parts of the body, such as the eye. Moh’s surgery is a kind of microscopic surgery in which tiny layers of cancerous tissue are removed, while preserving healthy tissue, and is most often used for skin cancer cases.
- Robotic surgery: In this technique, the surgeon will use a computer that remotely controls instruments attached to a robot. It may be used for a number of procedures, including cutting away cancer tissue from sensitive body parts—for instance, blood vessels, nerves and important organs.
- Laparoscopic surgery: In this technique, a surgeon performs surgery through several small incisions in the abdomen with the assistance of a camera.