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Surgery is the oldest form of cancer treatment, and in recent years it has also begun to play a vital role in preventing, diagnosing and staging the disease.
Preventive (Prophylactic) Surgery
For some patients with very high risk factors for certain cancers, surgery may be recommended to prevent cancer from developing. For example, if a woman is diagnosed with the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, her physician may consider her cancer risk to be high enough to warrant removing the breasts (prophylactic mastectomy).
Biopsy (Diagnostic Surgery)
In order to fully understand the type and severity (stage) of the cancer, your surgeon must remove a portion of the suspicious mass so that it can be examined by a pathologist. Some biopsies can be performed with a needle in your physician’s office, while others may require surgery in a hospital.
Surgical Removal of a Tumor
If the cancer is in only one area and can be removed, your physician may recommend surgical removal. Surgery as a treatment is often combined with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other methods.
In cancer surgery, the surgeon removes the cancerous mass from the affected area of the body, along with a small amount of the surrounding tissue called the margin. The purpose of removing the margin is to make sure that it is free of cancer cells. After your surgery, a pathologist will examine the margin under a microscope, and his or her findings will help to determine the future course of your treatment.
In previous years, the only way for surgeons to remove cancer was through open surgery, cutting into the body to gain access to and remove the mass. Today, we have less invasive procedures such as laparoscopy and robotic-assisted surgery, which involve less risk and much shorter recovery times.
Debulking (Cytoreductive) Surgery
Debulking surgery is done to remove part of a tumor if removing the whole mass would cause too much damage. The remaining cancer may then be treated with radiation, chemotherapy or other methods. Debulking is commonly used for advanced ovarian cancer and certain lymphomas.
If the cancer is advanced, palliative surgery may be recommended to correct problems that are causing pain and/or disability. For example, some gastrointestinal cancers may grow to obstruct the intestines and interfere with digestion, and palliative surgery can be used to remove the blockage.
Preparing for Cancer Surgery
The surgical approach your physician recommends will depend on the type and stage of your cancer, as well as your age and overall health. Make sure you understand well in advance exactly what the surgery will involve, what you need to do to prepare for it, and what to expect afterwards.
What to Expect From Cancer Surgery
Approaches to cancer surgery vary widely, so talk to your medical team to make sure that you understand exactly what will be done during the procedure. Some questions you’ll want to review with your team are:
- Why am I having this operation, and what are the chances of success?
- What are the risks of this operation?
- Exactly what will be done during this operation? What will be taken out? Why?
- How long will the surgery take?
- Will I need blood transfusions?
- What side effects can I expect after the surgery?
- How will my body be affected by the surgery? Where will the scars be? Will any of the effects be permanent?
- What will the next step(s) after surgery be (e.g., chemo, radiation, etc.)?
- How long you’ll need to stay in the hospital (if needed)
- How long recovery typically takes, including recovery from the anesthesia
- Whether any drains or tubes will be inserted, how long they will stay in, and where and how they will be removed
- How much pain or discomfort you can expect and how it will be managed
- Any restrictions on eating, drinking or physical activity while you recover
Learn more about cancer treatment:
- Radiation Therapy
- Cell & Gene Therapy
- Hormone Therapy
- Biological Therapy/Immunotherapy
- Clinical Trials
For more information about cancer surgery at the Methodist Cancer Center or to make an appointment, call us at 713-790-2700.