Cancer Surgery

Surgical excision of a tumor mass is the earliest form of cancer treatment and remains one of the most effective methods to cure cancer today.  In recent years, the roles of surgery have expanded to include preventing, diagnosing and staging, or determining how far the disease has spread. Research to improve surgical techniques and develop new technology has made surgery safer and more effective than ever before.  Surgeons today can perform operations that just a few years ago would have been impossible to consider. Learn more about the various topics below and how it may affect you:


Types of Cancer Surgery
Preventive (Prophylactic) Surgery
For some patients with very high risk for certain cancers, surgery may be recommended to prevent cancer from developing. For example, if you have the breast cancer BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation, your doctor may consider your breast cancer risk to be high enough to warrant removing the breasts, know an a prophylactic mastectomy.
Biopsy (Diagnostic Surgery)
To fully understand the type and severity of the cancer, your surgeon will remove a portion of the suspicious mass so that a pathologist can examine it under a microscope. 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 cancer is in only one area and can be taken out, your doctor may recommend surgical removal. Surgery as a treatment is often combined with radiation therapy, chemotherapy or other methods to treat the cancer systemically.
During the cancer surgery, the surgeon removes the cancerous mass, 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 — it is essentially a safety margin.
After your surgery, a pathologist will examine the tissue under a microscope to ensure that all of the cancerous cells were removed, also known as having clean margins.  Your pathologist’s findings can help determine the future course of your treatment.
In the past, 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, your surgeon may use procedures that are considered to be minimally invasive relative to older open techniques. For example,  laparoscopic surgery uses a camera mounted on a thin flexible tube that enables the surgeon to see and manipulate special surgical instruments.  These are all inserted through small incisions, which involve less risk and make your recovery shorter. In some cases, these surgeries use robotic assistance to perform the surgery.
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 therapies. Debulking is commonly used for advanced ovarian cancer and certain lymphomas.
Palliative Surgery
If your cancer is at an advanced stage, palliative surgery may be recommended to correct problems that are causing pain and 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 doctor 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 afterward.
What to Expect From Cancer Surgery
Approaches to cancer surgery vary widely, so you and your medical team will work together to make sure that you understand exactly what will be done during the procedure, and that your questions about the surgery and expected outcomes have been asked and answered. Questions that you should ask your care team can include the following:
  • 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., chemotherapy, radiation, etc.)?  

What to Expect After Cancer Surgery
The duration and nature of your recovery from cancer surgery will depend on the specific procedure your surgeon performs. Before the surgery, make sure you understand what to expect during your recovery. Asking the following questions may help you better prepare for recovery after surgery: 
  • How long will I need to stay in the hospital (if at all)? 
  • How long does recovery typically take (including recovery from the anesthesia)?
  • Will any drains or tubes be inserted? How long they will stay in? Where and how they will be removed? 
  • How much pain or discomfort can I expect? How it will be managed?
  • Will I have any restrictions on eating, drinking or physical activity while I recover?

Nonsurgical Cancer Treatments
Although surgery is safer and more effective than ever, your doctor may recommend other treatments as an alternative to surgery to provide you with the best treatment for your individual circumstances.

Learn more about the following nonsurgical cancer treatments:


The doctors and other health care providers at Houston Methodist are dedicated to providing the most up-to-date resources to screen, diagnose and treat cancer.


Our continued commitment to research enables us to improve present and future cancer care. Learn more about our current cancer-related clinical trials.