Cancer Surgery 101: A Guide to Your Treatment

Cancer Surgery 101: A Guide to Your Treatment

Reviewed by Jasper Clinical Board

Last updated 5/24/21

Surgery is a very common part of cancer treatment. It has many important uses—from diagnosis to treatment to restoring body function and appearance. But just because surgery is normal doesn’t make it easier or less stressful!
Let’s break down the basics of cancer-related surgery, so you know what to expect and how to prepare yourself beforehand.

How can surgery help in cancer treatment?

Like we said above, surgery plays many different roles during cancer treatment. Here are the biggest ones:

Diagnosis & Staging

To determine whether a growth is cancerous, doctors usually need to perform a minor procedure in order to take a sample of tissue to examine in a lab. This is called a biopsy. If cancer is found, the biopsy can also help doctors determine its stage, or how far the cancer has spread in your body. (Sometimes other tests beyond the biopsy are also needed for “staging” a cancer.) This information then guides how your cancer is treated.

Primary treatment

Sometimes surgery is used to try to remove all of the cancerous tissue from a patient’s body. This approach works best if the cancer is solid, limited to one area, and hasn’t spread. In this case, surgery can be combined with chemotherapy or radiation as an adjuvant therapy. 


A debulking surgery involves removing as much of the cancerous growth as possible. Debulking surgery is used when some of the cancerous tissue can’t be removed (because it would damage an organ, for example). Debulking surgery is typically combined with chemotherapy or radiation.

Supportive treatment

A supportive surgery is a procedure that helps ease your cancer treatment or helps your body continue functioning during treatment. For example, you might have a port, IV, or catheter implanted so you don’t have to experience the discomfort of frequent needle insertions. An internal pump might be implanted to dispense chemotherapy drugs. Or a tube might be surgically placed to help with your breathing or nutrition.


A palliative surgery is a procedure done to improve the patient’s quality of life rather than to treat the cancer itself. For example, surgery can help reduce pain caused by a tumor pressing on a nerve. Other examples of palliative surgery would be removing tumor tissue causing discomfort or difficulty with swallowing or bowel movements.  


Preventive surgery aims to reduce the risk of cancer in the future. It’s also called prophylactic surgery. Women with a high genetic risk of developing breast cancer may opt for preventive mastectomies, for example, since removing the breasts reduces the risk of cancer. Colectomy, removal of portions of the colon, is another example of preventive surgery and can help prevent colorectal cancer in high-risk patients. 


Sometimes surgery that treats cancer alters the appearance or function of a person’s body. In these cases, restorative surgery can help to improve lost function or recreate a familiar shape or appearance. A common instance would be a breast implant following a mastectomy. This is sometimes also called reconstructive or rehabilitative surgery.

What techniques are used in cancer surgery?

If your healthcare team is recommending surgery, there are two major types you’ll hear about: open and minimally invasive.

Open surgery

Open surgery is what most people think of when they imagine surgery. A surgeon creates a large incision in the skin to open up the body (to remove a tumor, for instance). Your surgeon may also want to remove nearby lymph nodes to check whether the cancer has spread or to prevent it from spreading to other parts of your body through the lymphatic system. 

Minimally invasive surgery

In minimally invasive procedures, special tools and techniques allow for smaller incisions on the body—or sometimes no external incisions at all. These types of procedures carry a lower risk of infection and allow for faster recovery.
There are many surgical techniques that fall into the minimally invasive category. A common one is laparoscopic surgery. A laparoscope is a long, thin, flexible tube with a tiny camera on the end. This specialized tool is inserted through a small incision on your skin, allowing your surgeon to view images of internal structures of your body on a screen. With this view, the surgeon can then insert other tools through other small incisions to complete the needed procedure. 
Other minimally invasive techniques involve using lasers, electrical currents, heat, extreme cold or precise injections of alcohol to kill or remove cancer cells. In robotic surgery, the surgeon controls their tools through a computer interface rather than moving them by hand. 
Of course, the type of surgery you need and the exact procedures used will depend on your specific situation. Don’t hesitate to ask your medical team about the techniques they plan to use and why they are recommending a certain procedure. Learning about a surgery ahead of time can help you discuss your options with your medical team and understand what to expect. This can boost your sense of control and lower your fear and anxiety.

What about anesthesia?

Obviously, surgery shouldn’t be painful! There’s a whole field of medicine—anesthesia—designed to minimize pain and discomfort during surgery. Depending on the type of surgery you need and techniques used, you may be given local, regional, or general anesthesia. 
  • Local anesthesia: Only a small part of the body is numbed, so you remain awake and alert. This is used for more minor, localized procedures, like removing growths on the skin. 
  • Regional anesthesia: A larger portion of your body is numbed (e.g. everything below your waist) and you may or may not be sedated using a separate medication.
  • General anesthesia: You are unconscious and won’t feel anything. This usually requires several medications. General anesthesia carries more risk and takes longer to recover from. 
Depending on the medications used, anesthesia can be given through injection into a vein or inhalation of a gas through a mask placed over your mouth and nose.

Preparation & Recovery

Surgery can be a challenging experience for your mind and body, so there’s every reason to get prepared ahead of time. In fact, doing so can help improve your health outcome, reduce the risk of complications, speed recovery time, and make the whole experience less stressful.
Of course, the exact preparations you need to make will depend on the kind of procedure you’re having. In general, open surgeries and procedures involving general anesthesia take longer to recover from.
Your medical team will explain in detail how to prepare for your surgery and what to expect. But here are some of our biggest high-level guidelines to streamline your surgery:

Stop eating and drinking before the procedure 

Your medical team will give you instructions to stop eating and drinking usually 8-12 hours before the procedure. This usually includes coffee, tea, water, gum, mints, lozenges, etc. 

Bathe and remove jewelry and makeup

The hospital may ask you to remove makeup, jewelry, nail polish, perfumes, lotions, and oils ahead of surgery—either from your whole body or around the area that will be treated. You may be asked to bathe with antibacterial soap. 

Ask whether you should stop medications and supplements 

If you regularly take medications or supplements, make sure you review them with your medical team. Some medications need to be stopped, sometimes weeks in advance, because of the risk of complications during surgery. This includes MAOIs (some antidepressant drugs and many medicines used to treat Parkinson’s disease). Blood thinners and anti-inflammatory pain medicines (like ibuprofen, aspirin and naproxen) also need to be stopped ahead of time since they can interfere with blood clotting and increase your risk of bleeding during surgery. Some supplements can have similar effects and may also need to be stopped, like fish oil and other omega-3 capsules, Vitamin E, ginkgo biloba and St. John’s Wort, among others. If you’re diabetic, you’ll likely need to skip oral hypoglycemic medicine the day of your surgery and you might need to lower your dosage of insulin. 
There are other drugs it might be important to keep taking, including on the day of the surgery, like anti-seizure and blood pressure medications. Be sure to bring up all the drugs and supplements you take with your doctors well ahead of surgery and understand the instructions for each one.

Tell your doctors about any medical devices you use

If you use a CPAP machine or any other medical device, tell your medical team. You’ll probably need to bring this equipment with you to the hospital. Likewise, if you have any internal medical devices, like a pacemaker, tell your doctor about these, too. 

Take a break from some less-healthy habits 

Smoking, vaping, chewing tobacco, and drinking alcohol can raise your risk of complications during surgery and lengthen your recovery period. Fortunately, stopping or even reducing these habits ahead of surgery can reduce risks and improve long-term outcomes. Be open and honest with your medical team about your use of tobacco products, alcohol, and other recreational drugs and discuss how you can moderate or stop use ahead of your surgery. 

Strengthen healthy habits 

Taking good care of your mind and body ahead of any stressful event can help you get through it in better shape. Getting enough sleep, staying active, and doing things that you enjoy and help you relax will all contribute to a better experience and a faster recovery from surgery. Eating a healthy diet is also important! Constipation is a common experience after surgery, so keeping your diet high in fiber might be helpful. 

Plan for transportation and home care after surgery

The hospital may require you to have an adult available to drive you home after your procedure. You may also need to have someone keeping you company overnight or for 24 hours following discharge from the hospital. 

Plan for dependent care and other practical needs during and after surgery

If you’re responsible for children, adult dependents, or pets, you’ll need to plan ahead for their care during your procedure and as you recover. Talk to your medical team about what physical limitations you will have during the recovery period and enlist the help of friends, family, neighbors and paid services before you have the procedure. You may need help with tasks like buying groceries, preparing meals, home maintenance, etc. It can also be a good idea to stock up on certain items before your surgery, like groceries, regular prescriptions, pet food, and more. 

Have plenty of loose, comfortable clothing for your recovery period

Your movement may be limited or uncomfortable after surgery, so be sure to have clothing ready that will be comfortable to wear and easy to get on and off. Sometimes button-front clothing is easier than pullover options if you have limited movement. Talk to your medical team about what sort of clothing is best for your situation.

Create a packing list for your hospital stay

Consider what items you’ll need or want to bring with you to the hospital and check with your care team about any rules or limitations, which vary between hospitals. They may ask you to have someone else bring a bag for you after your procedure. You’ll probably want to bring medical equipment you use regularly like hearing aids, contact lenses, glasses, dentures, etc. and storage cases for these items. You may also want to bring your own comfortable clothing for recovery and some items to help you pass the time, like puzzle books, magazines, etc. (Read more here about planning for a hospital stay.)

Understand what your recovery period will look like

Your medical team will give you detailed instructions about how to care for yourself during the recovery period. Try to get as clear and detailed a picture as you can ahead of time, so you don’t have to scramble or make last-minute arrangements for time off with your employer. Don’t be afraid to repeat a question (and repeat it again) if you’re not getting a clear answer. There are lots of details here, and it’ll take a while to learn them all!
Specifically, ask your care team about any physical limitations and pain you’re likely to experience and what techniques and resources are available to help you manage them. The more you know ahead of your procedure, the better you’ll be able to focus on taking good care of yourself during your recovery.

The content on this website is intended to provide the best possible information for you, but should not be considered—or used as a substitute for—medical advice. If you have questions about your diagnosis or treatment, please contact your health care provider(s). For questions or comments about this content, please email us at