Surgery is the removal of either a cancerous or non-cancerous tumour and the surrounding tissue during an operation performed by a surgical oncologist (a doctor that specialises in treating tumours using surgery). The goal of surgery is to remove the entire tumour and the margin (tissue around the tumour), leaving a negative margin (no cancer in the healthy tissue).

For most childhood tumours, there is microscopic tumour left after surgery; doctors will then usually recommend chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other treatments.

Side effects of surgery depend on the location and type of the tumour and whether it has metastasised.

What is Cancer Surgery?

Surgery is the removal of the tumour and surrounding tissue during an operation by a surgical oncologist. It is the oldest form of cancer therapy and is still seen as an effective treatment for many types of cancer today.

The goals of surgery vary:

  • Surgery is often used to remove all or some cancerous tissue after diagnosis;
  • Surgery can also be used to diagnose cancer, find out where the cancer is located, whether it has spread, and whether it is affecting the functions of other organs in the body;
  • Surgery can also be helpful to restore the body’s appearance or function or to relieve side effects.

Diagnostic Surgery

Diagnostic surgery is also known as a biopsy, and is often is the only way to make a definitive cancer diagnosis because it provides the most accurate analysis of tissue. This entails the surgeon making a cut in the skin and removing some or all of the suspicious tissue. There are two main types of biopsy:

  • Incisional Biopsy is the removal of a piece of the suspicious area for examination. An incisional biopsy may be used for soft tissue tumors, such as those that begin in muscle or fat, to distinguish between benign lumps and cancerous tumours called sarcomas.
  • Excisional Biopsy is the removal of the entire suspicious area, such as an unusual mole or a lump. This type of biopsy may be used for enlarged lymph nodes or in situations where the lump is small enough to be completely and easily removed during one procedure.

The tissue removed during the biopsy will be sent to a pathologist for examination and interpretation and a pathological report will be sent to the surgeon or oncologist, who will than make the diagnosis.

Staging Surgery

Staging Surgery is performed to find out how big the tumour is, whether it has spread, and if so, where it has spread. Staging Surgery often includes removing some lymph nodes near the cancer to find out if it has spread there. Staging surgery, together with the physical examination, biopsy, and laboratory and imaging tests results, helps the doctor to decide which type of treatment is best and to predict the patient’s chances of recovery.

Tumour Removal Surgery

Tumour Removal Surgery is also sometimes referred to as curative or primary surgery, and is surgery performed to remove the tumour and some of the tissue surrounding the tumour, known as the margin. Tumour Removal Surgery may be the only treatment necessary or it may be combined with chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or other treatments, which may be given before or after surgery.

Debulking Surgery

Debulking Surgery is surgery that is performed when it is not possible to remove the whole tumour, or when the removal of that tumour could cause excessive damage to the body; during debulking, as much of the tumour as possible is removed. Debulking Surgery may be performed in conjunction with other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy, which may then be used to shrink the remainder of the tumour.

Palliative Surgery

Palliative Surgery may be performed to relieve side-effects caused by a tumour, and is  important in improving quality of life for patients who have advanced cancer or widespread disease. Palliative Surgery may be performed under the following circumstances:

  • To help restore physical function or relieve pain where a tumor is pressing on a nerve or the spinal cord, is blocking the bowel or intestines, or is creating pressure or a blockage elsewhere in the body.
  • Where the cancer is causing bleeding in areas with a high concentration of blood vessels, such as the uterus, the oesophagus, stomach, or bowel. Bleeding may also occur as a side effect of some drugs used to treat cancer.
  • To insert a feeding tube or tubes that deliver medications.
  • To prevent bones weakened by cancer or cancer treatment from breaking.

Reconstructive Surgery

Reconstructive Surgery may be performed to restore the body’s appearance or function and can be done at the same time as surgery to remove the tumour or at a later stage.

Side Effects of Cancer Surgery

Surgery, like all other cancer treatments, has its benefits, risks, and side effects. The type of side-effects and their intensity depend on the type of surgery, the type and location of the cancer, and the patient’s overall health status.

Fortunately, thanks to recent advances in surgical techniques, including the advent of minimally invasive surgery, the side effects of modern surgery are often milder than they were in the past, allowing patients to recover faster. Doctors have also made stellar strides in reducing pain and other physical side effects from surgery.

Relieving side-effects, also known as palliative care, supportive care, or symptom management, is an important part of cancer care and treatment.


Please note that the Little Fighters Cancer Trust shares information regarding various types of cancer treatments on this blog merely for informational use. LFCT does not endorse or promote any specific cancer treatments – we believe that the public should be informed but that the option is theirs to take as to what treatments are to be used.

Always consult your medical practitioner prior to taking any other medication, natural or otherwise.