Surgery for Cancer Treatment

MUSC surgeon

Surgery is used in several ways to help people with cancer and it provides the best chance to stop many types of cancer. It also plays a part in diagnosing, staging, and supporting cancer treatment. Having surgery for cancer is different for every person. It will depend on the type of surgery, the type of cancer and the person's health.

Hollings Cancer Center offers a team of surgeons who specialize in treating cancer patients, including Fellowship-trained surgical oncologists. We are also at the forefront of laparoscopic and endoscopic techniques for cancer surgeries that have previously been done via a full, open incision. These minimally invasive techniques improve precision and reduce the surgical impact on patients, including the reduction of tissue damage and post-surgical pain while promoting a faster recovery.

A team of Hollings surgeons are trained in the use of the da Vinci® Surgical System, a robot that helps to increase surgical precision and shorten recovery time. Surgeons receive specialized training on the device, which is being used to treat prostate, thoracic, head and neck and gynecologic cancers.

Learn more about Robotic Surgery at MUSC

Types of Surgery

There are several types of surgery that are helpful to people with cancer. Some surgeries are used along with other types of treatment. They include:

Curative surgery
This surgery removes the cancerous tumor from the body. Surgeons use it when the tumor is limited to a specific area of the body. This type of treatment is often considered the primary treatment. However, other types of cancer treatments, such as radiation, may be used before or after the surgery.

Preventive surgery
This surgery is used to remove tissue that does not have cancerous cells, but may develop into a malignant tumor. For example, polyps in the colon may be considered precancerous tissue. Surgery may be done to remove them.

Diagnostic surgery
This surgery helps to determine whether cells are cancerous. Diagnostic surgery is used to remove a tissue sample, called a biopsy, for testing and evaluation. The tissue samples help to confirm a diagnosis, identify the type of cancer, and determine the stage of the cancer.

Staging surgery
This surgery works to uncover the size of the cancer or the degree of the disease in the body. Laparoscopy is an example of a surgical staging procedure. This type of surgery allows the doctor to look inside the body and remove tissue samples through a small incision.

Debulking surgery
This surgery removes a part, though not all, of a cancerous tumor. It is used in certain situations when removing an entire tumor may cause damage to an organ or the body. Other types of cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation, may be used after this is done.

Palliative surgery
Sometimes surgery is used to treat cancer at advanced stages. It does not work to cure cancer, but to relieve discomfort or to correct other problems cancer or treatment may have created.

Supportive surgery
Supportive surgery is similar to palliative surgery. It does not work to cure cancer. Instead, it helps other cancer treatments work more effectively. An example of supportive surgery is the insertion of a catheter to help with treatments and to draw blood instead of putting needles in the arm.

Reconstructive surgery
Surgery is sometimes used as a follow-up to curative or other surgeries. It helps to change or restore a person’s appearance or the function of a body part. For example, women with breast cancer sometimes need breast reconstruction surgery to restore the shape of the affected breast.

Other Types of Surgery

There are several specialized surgeries used during cancer treatment. They include:

Cryosurgery
This technique uses very cold temperatures to kill cancer cells. Cryosurgery is used most often with skin cancer and cervical cancer. Depending on whether the tumor is inside or outside the body, liquid nitrogen is placed on the skin or in an instrument called a cryoprobe. It is being evaluated as a surgical treatment for several types of cancers.

Electrosurgery
Skin cancer and oral cancer are sometimes treated with electrosurgery. This technique uses a high frequency electrical current to kill cancer cells.

Laser surgery
This technique uses highly-focused beams of light energy instead of instruments to remove very small cancers, shrink or destroy tumors, or activate drugs to kill cancer cells. Laser surgery is a very precise procedure that can be used to treat areas of the body that are hard to reach including the skin, cervix, rectum, and larynx.

Microscopically-controlled surgery 
This surgery is useful when cancer affects delicate parts of the body, such as the eye. Layers of skin are removed and looked at under a microscope until cancerous cells can’t be found.

How to manage your treatment and the side effects of surgery.

Thoracic surgeon looking at scans