Surgery to remove cancer is often an essential part of cancer treatment. Most types of tumours can be safely sampled by an incisional biopsy (where the surgeon cuts through the skin), or a needle biopsy (where the surgeon uses a small needle) to remove a small piece of the tumour to send away for testing. In the past, larger needles were used for needle biopsies, and the chance of cancer cells spreading to surrounding tissue and vessels and transported through the circulatory or lymphatic systems to other sites was higher. With current techniques, the risk that a biopsy may cause cancer cells to spread is extremely low.
However, some cancers cannot be biopsied safely. These are eye tumours, testicular cancers and some types of brain tumours. These cancers are usually treated by completely removing the tumour without taking a biopsy.
A common myth about cancer is that exposing a tumour to air during surgery causes cancer to spread. People may believe this because they feel worse after surgery than they did before. However, it is normal to feel this way when recovering from any surgery. Sometimes people may believe this myth when during surgery it is discovered that the cancer is more advanced than was expected based on the pre-surgery scans and x-rays. In these cases, the cancer was already there, but the original tests did not show its extent. There is no evidence to support the idea that exposing a tumour to air during surgery causes cancer to spread. Do not delay treatment because of this myth.
If you are still concerned about surgery, Cancer Council NSW recommends that you talk to your doctor about the risks and benefits of your treatment. For support and further information please call Cancer Council NSW Helpline 13 11 20.