Treating cancer with surgery
Surgery plays an important role in treating most types of cancers. The goals of surgery vary by cancer type, stage and situation, and include one or more of the following:
- Remove a sample of tissue for the purpose of diagnosing cancer or gathering more information about cancer type, subtype, stage and biomarkers to help guide treatment. In some cases, this may be performed by a need biopsy rather than surgery.
- Remove the entire cancerous tissue or affected organ, often including some surrounding tissue to reduce the risk of spread or recurrence.
- Remove as much of the cancerous tissue as possible to improve symptoms or increase the effectiveness of therapy (sometimes called debulking).
Like all cancer treatments, surgery can have side effects. Visit our section on Side Effects for more information.
Role of lymph node dissection and sentinel node biopsy
Lymph nodes are part of our immune system. Located throughout our body, they act like filters that protect tissue and organs from infections. Surgeons remove lymph nodes near the tumor to see how far the cancer has spread. Removal of lymph nodes can lead to a long-term health issue known as lymphedema. The more lymph nodes that are removed, the greater the chance for lymphedema.
For this reason, many cancer surgeries now include a procedure known as "sentinel node biopsy." Before surgery, the surgeon injects a dye or an agent known as a "tracer" into the tumor. This helps the surgeon find and remove the first lymph node that filters the cancer, known as the sentinel node. The sentinel node is then checked for cancer. If no evidence of cancer is found, the surgeon can leave the other lymph nodes in place, lowering the risk for lymphedema. If the sentinel node shows evidence of cancer, the surgeon may remove other lymph nodes as well.
After a biopsy or surgery confirms cancer, pathologists look closely at the cells and perform additional tests. This may include tumor biomarker tests. Your pathology report contains important information about your cancer diagnosis, which may be used to guide the choice of treatment. Ask your doctor or nurse to explain any parts of your pathology report or medical record that you do not understand. Information that may be found in your pathology report includes:
- type of cancer
- subtype of cancer
- tumor grade
- results of special stains
- whether the tumor was completely removed
- results of biomarker tests
- The American College of Surgeons website allows you to look for a surgeon by location and expertise. Their site also contains tips of choosing the right surgeon for your situation.
- The National Cancer Institute (NCI)-designated comprehensive cancer centers deliver cutting-edge cancer care to patients in communities across the United States. Most centers have specialized screening and prevention centers for high risk people. Find a center near you and learn about its specific research capabilities, programs, and initiatives.
- Register for the FORCE Message Boards to get referrals from other members. Once you register, you can post on the Find a Specialist board to connect with other people who share your situation.