Surgery is a way to remove cancer from the body or repair a part of the body affected by cancer. It usually involves cutting into the body. It may be called a procedure, operation or surgical resection. It is done by one or more surgeons and a team of other health professionals, including an anaesthetist, nurses and technicians.
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When is surgery used for cancer?
Many cancers that are found at an early stage can be removed with surgery, and this may be the only treatment needed. If cancer has already spread to a number of places in the body, surgery may not be the best treatment.
The Guides to Best Cancer Care set out the recommended treatment pathways in Australia for many types of cancer. For some cancers, surgery is recommended as the most effective approach, either on its own or in combination with other treatments. For other cancers, non-surgical treatments are more effective.
If you have to travel for surgery, there may be a program in your state or territory to refund some of the cost of travel and accommodation. The hospital social worker can help you apply. You may need to keep your original travel tickets, receipts and invoices. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 or visit Transport to cancer treatment for more information.
Why have surgery?
Surgery is an important part of treating cancer. It can be used:
To prevent cancer
Preventive or prophylactic surgery removes healthy tissue that doctors believe will probably become cancerous. It is done to reduce a person’s risk of developing cancer. The decision to have preventive surgery should be made after talking to qualified health professionals, including a genetic counsellor.
To diagnose or stage cancer
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 also help the doctor determine the size of the tumour and whether the cancer has spread. This is called staging.
To achieve cure
Small, early-stage cancers that haven’t spread are often successfully treated with surgery. If the cancer is only in one part of the body, the surgeon may remove the cancerous tissue or a whole organ.
To reduce the size of the cancer
If it is not possible to remove all the cancer without damaging nearby healthy organs, debulking (cytoreductive) surgery may be done. The aim of the surgery is to remove as much of the cancer as possible, to help make other treatments more effective.
To reconstruct a part of the body
Reconstructive or plastic surgery can be done for many different reasons, such as to take control of your appearance, and help improve mobility or function. Examples include breast reconstruction after removal of a breast (mastectomy) or a skin graft after surgery for skin cancer.
To help other treatments
Some procedures are done to assist other cancer treatments. For example, you may have a procedure to insert a tube (catheter) into a large vein in your chest to make it easier to receive chemotherapy.
To relieve symptoms
Surgery can help to relieve cancer symptoms and treatment side effects. This is known as palliative treatment. For example, you may have surgery to treat a blockage in the bowel or to relieve discomfort caused by tumours pressing on nerves.
Will I have other cancer treatments?
For some types of cancer, you may be given other treatments before, during or after surgery.
Timing of other cancer treatments with surgery
|before (neoadjuvant)||Drug therapies or radiation therapy may be given before surgery to try to shrink the tumour and make it easier to remove.|
|during (simultaneous)||Two types of treatment are sometimes given at the same time – for example, radiation therapy or heated chemotherapy may be given during surgery.|
Drug therapies or radiation therapy may be given after you have recovered from surgery, often when:
Podcast: Making Treatment Decisions
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; John Leung, Consumer; 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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