Surgery means treating illness by removing body tissue. Cancer surgery can be used for a number of purposes and it is one of the main treatments for cancer.
Surgery may be used to help diagnose some cancers. The surgeon removes a small piece of tissue, which is used to confirm the diagnosis of cancer and to find out about the type of cancer. This is called a biopsy. The sample is then examined in the laboratory.
Where possible, surgery is used to remove the tumour and surrounding tissues that may contain cancer cells. This may still be done even if the cancer has spread to another part of the body.
Occasionally it’s used to remove cancer cells that have spread from the original tumour into another part of the body, such as the lung or liver.
Sometimes treatment such as chemotherapy can be given before surgery to reduce the size of a cancer so that less surgery is needed.
Staging is the process that doctors use to work out the size of the cancer, whether it’s just in the place where it first started, or whether it may have spread to other parts of the body. Usually tests and scans are used to stage a cancer before surgery. However, occasionally doctors need to carry out small operations to find out the stage of the cancer. This might be because the tumour can’t be seen on a scan.
An example of surgery used in staging is a laparoscopy. During a laparoscopy a surgeon will make a small cut in your abdomen (tummy). They will use a special instrument called a laparoscope (a thin tube with an eyepiece at one end and a light and magnifying glass at the other end) to look around and work out the size of the tumour and if it has spread.
Some people may have similar operations on other parts of the body. Information about the stage of the cancer is used to plan treatment. Sometimes, surgeons can get this information at the same time as removing a tumour.
Surgery can be used to restore:
a part of the body - for example, to create a new bladder
the appearance of a part of the body - for example, breast reconstruction after a mastectomy (an operation to remove the breast)
Reconstructive surgery is usually carried out by specialist surgeons.
If the cancer can’t be completely removed or cured, surgery can sometimes still help to control symptoms. For example, removing or bypassing a tumour to reduce blockage, discomfort or other complications.
If the cancer has spread by the time you’re diagnosed, you may not be offered surgery as your main treatment. This is because surgery alone will not cure you. Depending on the type of cancer you have, you may be offered a treatment that treats cancer cells throughout your body, such as chemotherapy or hormonal therapy. Radiotherapy may also be used to help control a cancer that cannot be treated surgically.
You can get more information about operations for specific types of cancer by reading more about your type of cancer.