Cancer Surgery

Nearly all patients with cancer will have some kind of surgery. Cancer surgery may be used to perform a biopsy in order to obtain a specimen for determining an accurate diagnosis, provide local treatment of the cancer, and obtain other information to help determine whether additional treatment is necessary.  Surgical techniques continue to improve, and surgeries are now less invasive and often performed on an outpatient basis.


In order to diagnose a cancer, a physician will typically perform a biopsy of a suspicious area, lump or mass suspected of being cancer. A biopsy can be performed on an outpatient basis. During a biopsy, part or all of the suspected cancer is removed and cells contained in the sample are sent to a pathology laboratory to determine whether cancer is present. Other information obtained from the biopsy sample can play an important role in treatment decisions. If the biopsy indicates that cancer is present, additional tests to determine the stage of cancer will be performed. Surgery may be performed as part of the staging evaluation and/or as part of treatment after the patient and doctor determine the overall treatment plan.


Before having surgery, ask yourself the following questions or ask your medical provider the following questions to get answers that will help you feel more comfortable with your decision.

  • Why am I having this operation? What are the chances of its success?
  • Is there any other way to treat this cancer?
  • Other than my cancer, am I healthy enough to go through the stress of the surgery and the drugs used to do it (anesthesia)?
  • Are you certified by the American Board of Surgery and/or Specialty Surgery Board?
  • How many operations like this have you done? What is your success rate? Are you experienced in operating on my kind of cancer?
  • Exactly what will you be doing in this operation? What will you be taking out? Why?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • Will I need blood transfusions?
  • What can I expect after the operation? Will I be in a lot of pain? Will I have drains or catheters? How long will I be in the hospital after the surgery?
  • How will my body be affected by the surgery? Will it work or look different? Will any of the effects be permanent?
  • How long will it take for me to recover enough to go back to my usual activities?
  • What are the possible risks and side effects of this operation? What is the risk of death or disability with this surgery?
  • What will happen if I choose not to have the operation?
  • What are the chances that the surgery will cure my cancer?
  • Do I have time to think about my options or get a second opinion?

Preparing for surgery

Depending on the type of operation you have, there may be things you need to do to be ready for surgery.

Emptying your stomach and bowels (digestive tract) is important if you will be given drugs to make you sleep during surgery (anesthesia). Vomiting while under anesthesia can be very dangerous because the vomit could get into your lungs and cause an infection. For this reason, you will be asked to not eat or drink anything starting the night before the surgery. You may also be asked to use a laxative or an enema to make sure your intestines are empty.

You may need to have an area of your body shaved to keep hair from getting into the surgical cut (incision). The area will be cleaned before the operation to reduce the risk of infection. Other special preparations may be needed, too.

It is normal to be anxious about surgery and anesthesia. Let your doctors know about these fears. They may give you medicine to help you relax before surgery.

The operation

Again, although each type of surgical procedure is different, they usually have certain things in common.