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Quick Facts

Surgery for Cancer


The Manual's Editorial Staff

Last full review/revision Sep 2019| Content last modified Sep 2019
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When do doctors use surgery to treat cancer?

Cancer surgery is when doctors operate on you to cut out your cancer. Usually, doctors operate only when:

  • The cancer hasn't spread (metastasized) anywhere

  • Your body is strong enough to go through surgery

If your cancer hasn’t spread through your body, surgery may cure you. But once the cancer has spread, cutting out the original cancer won't cure you. The remaining cancer will continue to grow and spread. Your doctor will do tests before surgery to see if the cancer has spread. You may have a CT scan, MRI, or other tests.

However, those tests can't find microscopic bits of cancer. So, during surgery, your doctor often takes out lymph nodes that are near the tumor. Lymph nodes are tiny bean-shaped organs that are part of your body's immune defenses. Cancer often first spreads to these nearby lymph nodes. The laboratory will test the lymph nodes to see whether the cancer has started to spread.

  • Taking out lymph nodes that have cancer in them (the lymph nodes are "positive") doesn't help cure you

  • If the cancer is in lymph nodes that your doctor removed, almost always the cancer has spread to other places too

If your doctor knows your lymph nodes are positive for cancer, then you may get other treatments such as chemotherapy or radiation.

If I have surgery, do I need any other treatments?

After your tumor has been taken out, you may have more surgery. For example, after a mastectomy (removal of a breast) to treat breast cancer, you may have surgery to rebuild the shape and look of your breast, called breast reconstruction.

Depending on what type of cancer you have, your doctor may also give you:

You may get these treatments before or after your surgery.

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