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Innovative new techniques are constantly transforming this ancient medical art.

Surgery is one of the oldest, most effective, and most widely practiced medical techniques. Surgeons remove appendixes, restore vision, and mend broken bones every day. And while surgery has been performed since the beginning of human civilization, new innovations and techniques continue to make surgery one of the most effective and versatile cancer treatments today.

Most people with cancer will undergo one or more surgical procedures during their treatment, and in many cases surgery offers the best chance for a cure.

Here are some of the ways that surgery is used to help prevent, diagnose, and treat cancer:

  • Preventive surgery removes precancerous, abnormal, and sometimes normal tissue that could become cancerous.
  • Diagnostic surgery is used to detect whether a disease is present. In a biopsy, a small portion of tissue is removed to find out if it is cancerous.
  • Staging surgery removes tissue to see how widespread a cancer is.
  • Curative surgery removes a tumor that has not spread beyond its original site. Your doctor may prescribe chemotherapy or radiation after surgery to treat any cancerous cells that may have been left behind.
  • Cytoreductive or debulking surgery removes most, but not all, of a tumor. Usually it’s followed with chemotherapy or radiation to destroy the rest of the cancer.
  • Palliative surgery is performed to relieve cancer symptoms.
  • Reconstructive surgery rebuilds tissue to restore the function or appearance of a part of the body that may have been affected by cancer or during treatment.

Check the margins

During surgery to remove a tumor, your surgeon will also remove some of the tissue that borders the tumor, known as the margin. After the operation, a pathologist will examine this tissue under a microscope for signs of cancer cells. A clean margin shows no cancerous cells, and means it’s likely that all the cancer was removed from the body. A positive margin contains cancer cells, and your doctor will recommend additional surgery or other conventional treatment. Even people with clean margins might benefit from an adjuvant or additional therapy to enhance the effectiveness of the primary therapy. That’s because there’s always a chance that undetected cancer cells remain after surgery.

Most people feel anxiety about surgery, from fears about the operation itself to concerns about managing pain or dealing with physical limitations or changes after treatment. But there are steps you can take to help things go smoothly and get back to your routine as quickly as possible:


Ask questions. Find out exactly what to expect before, during, and after the procedure.

Take care of yourself. A healthy diet, plenty of rest, and appropriate physical activity prepare your body for the challenges ahead. Smoking can prolong recovery and may lead to post-operative lung complications.


Be prepared. Ask your care team how to look after incisions and follow instructions carefully for taking your medications. Find out which side effects are normal and which might indicate a complication. Make sure you know whom to contact if you need help.

Know your limits. Ask about any restrictions with regard to working, driving, and physical activity, and follow your doctor’s guidelines carefully.

Follow next steps. Find out when and how to start rehabilitation and when to schedule follow-up appointments.

An informed decision

Before your surgery, you’ll be asked to sign a consent form. This is a legal document confirming that your doctor has fully explained the operation, its risks, and your other options. Before you agree, you’ll want to make sure that surgery is the most appropriate treatment. In some cases, there may be less invasive treatment options that may be as effective for you.

Also, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as you can about the surgeons in the hospital where you plan to have your operation. Studies show that experienced surgeons who regularly perform complicated procedures have much higher rates of success than doctors who may be similarly qualified to operate but do so less often.