Types of cancer surgery

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Being told you need surgery for your cancer diagnosis or treatment can be scary. This page describes the different types of surgery you might need to help you prepare and know what to expect.

Key points

  • You will have a general anaesthetic for your surgery so that you will not feel pain or discomfort during the surgery, and so that you will not remember anything.
  • The most common type of surgery is called open surgery, which is used to treat cancer and remove tumours. Minimally invasive surgery is not used as often to treat cancer.
  • Types of surgery include biopsies, primary surgery and second-look surgery.
  • If you are concerned about the way your body works, looks or the way you feel after surgery, talk to your parent/guardian and to your health-care team so that they can help you cope.

The idea of having surgery is pretty scary for most people. Remember that you will have an anaesthetic, so you won’t remember the surgery and won’t feel pain while it’s happening.

There are two main ways that cancer surgery can be done.

In open surgery, the surgeon will make a cut called an incision in your body to get to the cancer. This is the most common type of surgery used to treat cancer and remove tumours. Because the incision can go through skin, muscles and sometimes bone, it can take a while to recover from this type of surgery.

In minimally invasive surgery, the surgeon doesn’t make a large incision. Instead, they make a number of very small incisions and use special tools that fit through them. These tools are often attached to cameras so that the surgeon can see and work inside the body. Because the incisions are smaller, recovery is faster. This kind of surgery is not used as often to treat cancer.

Your surgeon will tell you which surgery they will use to treat your cancer.

Types of surgery

The type of surgery you have will depend on the kind of cancer you have, as well as the purpose of the surgery as a part of your treatment plan.


A biopsy is a type of surgery where small amounts of tissues are removed from the body so that they can be examined under a microscope by a specialist.

Primary surgery

As a cancer treatment, primary surgery removes all or as much of the cancer as possible from the body. To do this, the surgeon cuts into the body and takes out the tumour as well as some of the healthy tissues around the tumour. Often, they will also take out any lymph nodes that are near the tumour. They can check these lymph nodes to see whether the cancer has spread.

Sometimes the tumour is too big or it’s too risky to remove the whole thing. In this case, you might receive chemotherapy before the surgery to shrink the tumour. Another option is to take out only part of the tumour. This is called debulking. You will need treatment with chemotherapy or radiation to kill the cancer cells the surgeon couldn't remove.

Debulking the tumour to make it smaller helps the chemotherapy or radiation work better. It can also help relieve or prevent the progression of symptoms, for example symptoms that come from a tumour pressing on the organs and tissues around it.

Second-look surgery

Second-look surgery is usually done after you’ve had some treatment. The surgeon makes an incision to look inside the body and see how well treatments have worked to kill cancer cells. If they see any cancer cells, they may also remove them at the same time. They might remove the tumour or they might debulk it.

Surgery and body image

Some surgeries can change how your body works, how your body looks and the way you feel about yourself. This can be one of the toughest parts of recovering from surgery. Talking and sharing how you feel about surgery and your body with someone you trust can make handling the changes a bit easier. Learn more about ways to cope with changes to your body.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019