Surgery is the most effective and fastest treatment for tumors that are caught early and have not metastasized. It is the only option ensuring that the entire visible tumor is eliminated. However, there is no guarantee that all microscopic extensions of a tumor have been removed. For this reason, surgeons may also remove a large portion of healthy tissue that surrounds the tumor. This may not be possible if the tumor lies near or within a vital tissue, such as a major nerve or organ.
Often, cancer surgery requires general anesthesia, in which the patient loses consciousness, and a hospital stay of several days. For example, women with breast cancer may have a lumpectomy or mastectomy, surgical removal of part (or all) of the breast. Depending on the stage of the tumor, doctors may also remove the nearby lymph nodes and muscle tissue. As with any major surgery, mastectomies and other major surgical cancer treatments involve some risk, and doctors must consider the overall health of the patient, as well as the stage of the tumor.
Some cancers can be treated surgically with less-invasive techniques, such as laser surgery. Laser surgery uses a powerful beam of high-energy light to vaporize certain tumors of the cervix, larynx, and skin. Physicians perform laser surgery with an endoscope inserted through a small incision in the skin. Laser surgery and other less-invasive surgical procedures may require only local anesthesia, in which a patient loses feeling in one particular area of the body but never loses consciousness.
Sometimes oncologists recommend surgery to improve a patient’s quality of life, even if it is not likely to rid the body of cancer. Surgery of this type aims to correct a problem that is causing discomfort or disability. For example, some cancers may spread to the spine, pressing on the spinal cord or nearby nerves. This pressure may cause severe pain, and in some instances, paralysis. Surgical removal of all or part of the tumor near the spine may alleviate these symptoms.