Surgery is a medical treatment performed by a surgeon or a surgical oncologist to remove cancer from the body or repair a part of the body affected by cancer. It’s sometimes called an operation or surgical resection.
For many cancers, doctors follow medical standards called clinical practice guidelines, which outline treatments that have been verified by research. Sometimes surgery is the most effective approach for a particular type of cancer, which is why it is recommended. In other cases, non-surgical treatments have been proven to be more effective.
Why surgery is used for cancer
There are several reasons why surgery is used for cancer:
Preventive or prophylactic surgery aims to remove healthy tissue that doctors believe will probably become cancerous in the future. It may significantly reduce a person’s cancer risk. For example, a woman with a strong family history of ovarian cancer may have prophylactic surgery to remove her healthy ovaries. The decision to have any type of prophylactic surgery should always be made after talking to qualified health professionals, including a genetic counsellor.
Surgery may be done to confirm a cancer diagnosis. The doctor may remove all or part of a tumour in a procedure called a biopsy.
Surgery can help the doctor determine the size of the tumour and whether the cancer has spread. This is called staging. The results of the surgery and other tests will help the doctor work out the stage and decide on appropriate treatment. Call 13 11 20 for more information about staging.
Small, early-stage cancers that haven’t spread are often successfully treated with surgery. If the cancer is confined to one part of the body, the surgeon will remove the cancerous tissue or a whole organ. This may be the only treatment, or it may be combined with other treatments.
If it is not possible to remove all the cancer without damaging nearby healthy organs, a surgical procedure called debulking is done to remove as much of the tumour as possible and to make other cancer treatments more effective.
Reconstructing the body
Reconstructive or plastic surgery can be done for different reasons, such as to improve your appearance and self-image, and to help with mobility or function. Examples include breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, or a skin graft after surgery for skin cancer.
Supporting other treatments
Supportive surgery is done to help another cancer treatment. For example, you may have day surgery to insert a tube (catheter) into a large vein in your chest so you can receive chemotherapy (e.g. via a central venous access device or port).
Surgery can be used to improve quality of life by easing symptoms and side effects of cancer and treatment. For example, surgery may be done if the cancer grows very large and blocks the bowel (obstruction). Other surgical procedures can help to reduce pain.
See information about the types of surgery used for cancer.
The way the surgery is done (the approach or technique) depends on the type of cancer, its location, the surgeon’s training and the equipment in the hospital/operating theatre. There are many different techniques that surgeons can use.
Doctors are constantly developing new surgical techniques with the aim of improving recovery times and causing less pain.
During open surgery, the surgeon makes a single vertical cut (incision) into the body to see and operate on the organs and remove cancerous tissue. Sometimes the cut can be quite large. Open surgery might also be used to find out more information about the cancer and its stage.
For cancers in the abdomen or the pelvic area, open surgery is the most common approach and is known as a laparotomy. When open surgery is done on the chest area, it is called a thoracotomy.
Also called minimally invasive surgery, this is when the surgeon makes a few small cuts in the body instead of the one large cut used in open surgery.
For abdominal surgery (laparoscopy), the surgeon makes about 3–5 small cuts and inserts an instrument called a laparoscope. This has a camera and a light attached to it, and the images are projected onto a TV screen. Other instruments are used to remove cancerous tissue.
Similar surgery can be performed on other parts of the body, such as the chest. This is sometimes called thoracoscopy or video-assisted thoracic surgery (VATS). Some people have keyhole surgery followed by open surgery.
In many cases, keyhole surgery can lead to a shorter stay in hospital and reduce bleeding, pain and recovery time.
This is a type of keyhole surgery where the surgical instruments are moved by robotic arms controlled by the surgeon, who sits at a console next to the operating table.
A laser can be used to remove or destroy cancerous tissue. In some cases, laser surgery can be less invasive than other types of surgery.
Also called cryotherapy, this is often used to treat skin cancers. Liquid nitrogen is sprayed onto the skin to freeze and kill the cancerous tissue.
Staying in hospital
Often you will need to be admitted to hospital to have surgery. This is called inpatient care. The length of your hospital stay depends on the type of surgery you have, the speed of your recovery and whether you have support at home after you are discharged.
It may be possible to have surgery as an outpatient (day surgery). This means you can go home soon after the surgery – you don’t have to stay overnight in hospital, provided there are no complications. Your doctor will tell you whether you will have surgery as an inpatient or outpatient at one of your pre-surgery appointments.
The surrounding tissue that is removed with the cancer is called the surgical margin. It is checked under a microscope in a laboratory by a pathologist. If there aren’t any cancer cells in the tissue, it is called a clear, negative or clean margin. If there are cancer cells, it is a positive or close margin, and you may require more treatment.
Possibility of surgery spreading the cancer
There are some situations where it is possible for surgery to spread the cancer, but these are very rare. In these cases, surgeons take precautions and will still operate if the benefits of surgery outweigh the risk of not having it.
For example, most men with testicular cancer have the entire testicle removed. This is because removing only part of the testicle can increase the chance of the cancer cells spreading during surgery.
If the surgeon has to remove tissue from more than one part of the body, they will use different instruments at each location to reduce the risk of cancer cells spreading.
Some people think cancer can spread if it’s exposed to air during surgery. This is incorrect. This myth may exist because people who feel worse after surgery than they did before might believe this is due to the cancer spreading. However, it’s common to feel unwell after surgery.
Another reason people may believe that exposure to air can spread cancer is if the surgeon finds more cancer than expected. In this case, the diagnostic tests and scans may not have shown all of the cancer, but the cancer was already there – surgery didn’t cause it to spread.
If you are concerned about the cancer spreading during surgery, talk to your surgeon or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
COVID-19 and surgery
To help stop the spread of COVID-19, your hospital may have put in place some extra procedures. You may need to have a negative rapid antigen test (RAT) before arriving at the hospital on the day of the surgery, hospitals may limit the number of people that visit, and you may have to wear a mask that covers your nose and mouth while you are in hospital.
If you have COVID-19 or are recovering from a recent COVID-19 infection, planned surgery may be delayed for a few weeks. This is to ensure you have recovered and the surgery can be carried out safely. Your hospital will let you know if there are any specific precautions you need to follow.
Costs of surgery
The cost of surgery varies, depending on the cancer type and stage, the operation you are having, the length of stay in hospital, and whether you have treatment as a public or private patient.
You have a right to know what you will have to pay for surgery and whether there will be any additional costs not covered by Medicare or your health fund. There may be fees you hadn’t expected (e.g. if you have surgery as a private patient, there will be separate fees for your surgeon, anaesthetist, operating room and hospital stay).
When you are booked in for surgery, ask your surgeon, anaesthetist and hospital for a written quote that shows what you will have to pay. Talk to your health insurer to see what is covered. If you are concerned about the cost, you may want to ask your surgeon if there is any way to reduce the costs, get a second opinion from another specialist, or seek surgery as a public patient.
Questions to ask
It’s important to ask questions about the type of surgery recommended to you and the surgeon who will be operating, such as their training and experience. See a list of suggested questions.
Other treatments you might have
Other treatments, such as chemotherapy or radiotherapy , can be given before, during or after surgery.
Other cancer treatments
Given before surgery to try to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove.
Given after surgery, often when:
- the tumour hasn’t been completely removed
- cancer has spread to other parts of the body, such as the lymph nodes
- there is a chance there are hidden cancer cells
- the cancer is likely to come back.
Two types of treatment are given at the same time. This is rare – an example is specialised chemotherapy called hyperthermic intraperitoneal chemotherapy, which is delivered directly to the abdomen during surgery.
Health professionals you may see
You will be cared for by a range of health professionals before, during and after surgery who will work as part of a multidisciplinary team (MDT). Read about the type of cancer you have for a list of the people who will make up your MDT.
Some of the health professionals you may see include:
- surgeon/surgical oncologist – a doctor who specialises in the surgical treatment of cancer
- anaesthetist – a doctor who administers anaesthetic before surgery and monitors patients during the operation
- cancer care coordinator or clinical nurse consultant – coordinates your care, liaises with other members of the MDT and supports your family throughout treatment
- nurses – administer drugs and provide care, information and support throughout your treatment
- social worker, psychologist – link you to helpful services and provide emotional support to you and your family
- dietitian – recommends an eating plan to follow when you’re in treatment and recovery
- physiotherapist – helps you to move and exercise safely to regain strength, fitness and mobility
- occupational therapist – offers equipment/aids and advice about getting back to your daily activities
- general practitioner (GP) – assists you with treatment decisions and provides follow-up care after surgery.
Other help is available in certain situations – for instance, if you will require a stoma, a stomal therapy nurse will give you specialised information and support.
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and University of Sydney, NSW; Chanelle Curnuck, Dietitian – Dietetics and Nutrition, Sir Charles Gairdner Osborne Park Health Care Group, WA; Department of Anaesthetics, Perioperative Medicine and Pain Medicine, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Feeney, Nurse Unit Manager, Breast, Endocrine and Gynaecology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Rohan Miegel, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, University of Queensland and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Suzanne Ryan, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of General Surgery, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Surgery - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in May 2023.