What are the Risks of Cancer Surgery?

Tamera Jackson by Tamera Jackson | Licensed since 2007
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This article was updated on: 09/16/2018

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Cancer surgery is a standard treatment for many different types of masses and tumors. It’s understandable to have questions about the risks involved if your doctor has recommended cancer surgery as part of your treatment. Although the risks and potential complications vary depending on the type of cancer surgery you’re having, your doctor should be able to answer your questions and help you understand the benefits of the procedure. That way, you will be able to make an informed decision about any cancer surgery procedure your doctor recommends.

What are the different types of cancer surgery?

Although the various cancer surgery procedures have different names depending on the location of the tumor, such as mastectomy (removal of the breast) or prostatectomy (removal of the prostate), the National Cancer Institute (NCI) describes two main types of surgery:

  • Open surgery, in which the surgeon makes a single large cut, or incision, to view and remove the cancerous mass and surrounding tissue, and, in some cases, nearby lymph nodes that may also be affected by the cancer.
  • Minimally invasive surgery, in which the surgeon makes a number of tiny incisions and inserts a camera (called a laparoscope) into one to view the tumor. The surgical instruments are then inserted into the other incisions and used to remove the tumor and affected tissue.

Cancer surgery serves many different purposes in treating your disease. According to the NCI, depending on the type and stage of your cancer, surgery is used to accomplish the following treatment goals:

  • Completely removing the cancerous tumor
  • Removing parts of the cancer, also called “debulking.” Debulking can be helpful if removing the entire tumor would damage an affected organ. It can also help other treatments, such as radiation and chemotherapy, be more effective in treating your cancer.
  • Ease symptoms, such as pain or pressure, that are caused by the tumor.

How is cancer surgery performed?

Cancer surgery is continually evolving as new technology and techniques are discovered. In addition to the open surgery and minimally invasive surgery techniques discussed above, the Mayo Clinic states your doctor may choose to perform one of the newer types of surgery to treat your cancer:

  • Cryosurgery, which uses extremely cold temperatures to freeze cancerous or pre-cancerous cells.
  • Laser surgery, which uses high-intensity light beams to destroy or shrink cancer cells.
  • Mohs surgery, which is a specialized technique that allows the surgeon to remove the cancer layer by layer, viewing the layers under a microscope, until the remaining tissue shows no evidence of cancer.
  • Robotic surgery, in which the surgeon uses hand controls to maneuver a robotic surgical instrument to remove a tumor, usually in a hard-to-reach place.

What are the risks of cancer surgery?

The American Cancer Society (ACS) explains that complications of cancer surgery can be a result of the surgical procedure itself or the medications used during the surgery. Although all surgeries carry some element of risk, in general, there are higher risks associated with more complex surgeries.

According to the ACS, most cancer surgery complications are not life-threatening. They may include:

  • Serious bleeding. Although all surgery involves some bleeding, occasionally a person’s blood may not clot normally or the surgery may damage a blood vessel causing more serious bleeding.
  • Blood clots. There is a risk of clot formation in the deep veins in the legs after cancer surgery. You’ll be encouraged to get up and walk as soon as possible after your surgery to help prevent clot formation.
  • Adverse drug reactions. Some people have serious reactions to anesthesia or other medications used during your surgery. Your surgical team carefully monitors your vital signs to watch for evidence of possible drug reactions.
  • Infection. Infections can occur at the site of the incision, in the lungs (pneumonia), or in other organs of the body, especially if the surgery involved your intestines or stomach. You will be given antibiotics if an infection develops after your cancer surgery.
  • Pain. You can expect some pain with cancer surgery, but your doctor may prescribe painkillers to help manage your post surgical pain.

How long does it take to recover from cancer surgery?

Your recovery time depends on the type of cancer surgery you have and your general health condition. According to the American Cancer Society (ACS), you may have some effects from the anesthesia used during surgery. Your doctor may also place drains in your incision, which may be removed in the hospital, or at the doctor’s office a few days after you go home.

Your doctor will give you instructions about eating and drinking, and the activities you can do once you go home. You will also learn how to take care of your incision (and drains, if you have any) and what warning signs to watch for during your recovery. You may also be given prescription medications to take at home. Don’t be afraid to ask questions so that you feel confident you understand what to do and what to expect once you get home.

Need more information about Medicare and cancer surgery?

I am happy to answer your questions and help you find the information you need. You can schedule a phone call or request an email by clicking on the buttons below. You can also find out about Medicare plan options in your area by clicking the Compare Plans button.

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