Think Beyond Cancer
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Surgery is a treatment for cancer which removes all or part of the cancer. The majority of people diagnosed with cancer will undergo surgery at some time during their care. Advances in surgical techniques have allowed surgeons to operate on a growing number of patients and have good outcomes. When a surgeon has to cut into the body to operate, it is called invasive surgery. Today, operations that involve less cutting and damage to nearby organs and tissues (less invasive surgery) often can be done to remove tumors while saving as much normal tissue and function as possible. Surgery offers the greatest chance for cure for many types of cancer, especially those that have not spread to other parts of the body.

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 your cancer to treating it 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:

  • Preventive: Preventive surgery is done to remove body tissue that is likely to become cancer (malignant), even though there are no signs of cancer at the time of the surgery. For example, pre-cancerous polyps may be removed from the colon. Sometimes preventive surgery is used to remove an entire organ when a person has an inherited condition that puts them at a much higher risk for having cancer some day.
  • 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 obstructing your intestine.
  • Restorative: This type of surgery is used to improve the way a person looks after major cancer surgery, or to restore the function of an organ or body part after surgery.
  • Supportive: Supportive surgery is done to help with other types of treatment. For example, a vascular access device can be surgically placed into a large vein. The port can then be used to give treatments or draw blood, instead of putting needles in the arms.

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.

There are risks that go with any type of medical procedure and surgery is no exception. Success partly depends on the type of surgery you are having and the surgeon's experience with it. The patient's physical health affects the process and outcome a great deal too. Of course, there are risks with almost everything we do in life. What is important is whether or not the expected benefits outweigh the possible risks. Before you decide to have any medical procedure done, it is important that you understand the risks. Different procedures have different kinds of risks and side effects. Be sure to discuss the details of your case with your doctor, who can give you a better idea about what your actual risks are.