Cancer Surgery

Surgery can diagnose, treat or even help prevent cancer. It often offers the greatest chance for a cure, especially if the cancer has not spread.

There are several types of surgery. The type determines the level of care, dressing, restrictions, recovery time, treatments and changes to daily life.

Often, surgery can be performed using robotic technology or another minimally-invasive approach. The surgeon explains the different surgeries and helps patients compare the risks and benefits.

Common Surgeries

Curative. Curative surgery is an option when all of the cancer can be removed without damaging surrounding tissues and organs. In that case, it is the main treatment. Chemotherapy or radiation therapy may be needed before or after the procedure.

Debulking. During debulking surgery, the doctor removes as much of the tumor as possible. The rest is treated with radiation or chemotherapy. Debulking surgery is performed when damage to surrounding organs and tissues is likely.

Diagnostic. Diagnostic surgery removes a piece of tissue (biopsy) to determine if cancer is present and/or the type of cancer.

Palliative. Palliative surgery treats problems caused by advanced cancer. It can relieve discomfort or disability, and help manage pain. For example, some stomach tumors grow large enough to block the intestine. Surgery removes the blockage.

Preventive (Prophylactic). Preventive surgery removes tissue that is likely to become cancerous. Typically, there are no signs of cancer at the time of surgery. For example, pre-cancerous polyps can be removed from the colon.

People who have inherited genes that put them at higher risk for developing cancer often consider preventive surgery. For example, women with a strong family history of breast cancer who carry the BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutation may consider a double mastectomy before cancer is found.

Restorative (Reconstructive). Restorative surgery improves a person’s appearance after major surgery. It can also restore function to an organ or body part. For example, breast reconstruction is often performed after a mastectomy.

Staging. Staging surgery helps doctors determine the degree of the cancer.

Supportive. Supportive surgery helps with other types of treatment. For example, a port-a-cath can be placed in the body to allow for treatments and blood draws.

Explore breast cancer-specific surgeries.


Drains remove blood and other fluids from the body after surgery, decreasing the chance of infection and promote healing. The type of surgery and the size of the surgical incision determine if a drain is required. If it is, the surgeon places it under the skin during surgery.

It is not necessary to stay in the hospital until the drain is moved. It’s fairly easy to care for a drain at home. Your surgeon will tell you if you can shower with the drain in place.

Drain Care

  • Report a fever of 100.5°F or higher or chills immediately to your doctor.
  • Keep the dressing dry. When you shower, cover the dressing with plastic wrap. If the dressing gets wet, change it. Do not take a tub bath or submerge the tube or dressing.
  • Call your doctor immediately if you have pain, or if your catheter becomes dislodged or broken, begins to leak, or there is blood in or around the catheter.


Sometimes, surgical removal of cancerous body parts changes how the body normally removes waste. An ostomy is a surgery that creates an opening from an area inside the body to the outside to help the body empty waste. If your cancer requires any of these devices, your surgeon will discuss them with you. A specialty nursing team will show you how to care for the device.

Common devices include:

  • Urostomy: Helps the body drain urine when the bladder or urinary tract is altered
  • Colostomy or ileostomy: Helps the body empty stool or have bowel movements when a portion of the intestine must be removed

Find resources for ostomy supplies.

Call the doctor if you have:

  • Fever greater than 100.5 degrees, chills or other symptoms of infection
  • Bleeding or severe bruising
  • Depression or anxiety that interferes with daily activities
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Inability to keep fluids down
  • Pain, burning or bleeding when passing urine
  • Rash or other allergic reactions t medication
  • Severe constipation or diarrhea
  • Shortness of breath, persistent cough or colored phlegm
  • Soreness or sores in the mouth or throat
  • Unrelieved pain and.or vomiting