Surgery is one of the most common treatments for cancer, but the thought of having surgery can be as frightening as the cancer itself. Understanding as much as possible about the surgery can ease these fears. If you or a loved one is going to have surgery, the terms below will be useful to know.
Types of cancer surgery
Curative surgery removes the entire cancer and is an attempt to cure the disease. Curative surgery is most helpful for cancers that are in only one part of the body. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, or both may be given before or after curative surgery.
Palliative surgery eases pain or symptoms by removing all or part of a cancer. Palliative surgery does not cure cancer, but it helps improve patients’ quality of life.
Preventive or prophylactic surgery keeps cancer from happening. For example, a woman might have her breasts removed to prevent breast cancer if the disease runs in her family. Reconstructive surgery is performed after cancer treatment to restore appearance and function.
Staging surgery helps doctors see where a cancer is located and how advanced it is.
Supportive surgery prepares a patient for other types of cancer treatment. For example, a patient might have a port (see below) put under the skin before receiving chemotherapy.
Open and minimally invasive approaches
Minimally invasive surgery, also called keyhole or laparoscopic surgery, uses cuts less than an inch long.
Open surgery means the surgeon makes a cut large enough to see into the body.
Robotic surgery uses one or more robotic arms controlled by a surgeon. These robotic arms can hold tiny instruments or laparoscopes (see below). This type of minimally invasive surgery helps keep surgeons’ hands from becoming too tired.
Ablation destroys cancers by making them very hot or cold. Surgeons use thin probes to heat or freeze the cancers.
Biopsy is the removal and study of small amounts of tissue from the body. The tissue can be taken after the cancer has been removed by surgery, in a separate surgery to remove only the tissue sample, or by a needle without surgery. Biopsies help doctors make an exact diagnosis.
Resection or excision means removal through surgery. If you see a word that ends in –ectomy, that tells you that all or part of an organ or structure is going to be removed. For example, a lumpectomy is the excision of a lump, and a nephrectomy is the excision of all or part of a kidney.
Catheters are flexible tubes used to put liquids into or take liquids out of the body.
Drains are tube-like devices that take fluid out of a wound or part of the body.
Endoscopes, laparoscopes, and thoracoscopes are thin, tube-like instruments with lights and lenses that doctors can use to see inside the body. Sometimes, these instruments have tools attached that doctors use to operate.
Ports or port-a-caths are small devices that are implanted under the skin and that lead into a blood vessel. Drugs can be given and blood can be drawn through these devices so that patients do not need multiple needle sticks.
Shunts are passageways that allow fluid to move from one part of the body to another. For example, a surgeon may use a shunt to redirect blood.
Words describing cancers or other tissues
Bilateral cancers affect both the right and left sides of the body. For example, bilateral breast cancer is found in the right and left breasts and might be treated with a bilateral mastectomy (removal of both breasts).
Inoperable cancers cannot be treated with surgery. Other treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy may be used instead.
Obstructions block passages in the body. For example, colon cancers sometimes cause bowel obstructions (the colon is part of the large bowel or large intestine) and have to be removed.
Operable cancers can be treated with surgery.
Resectable cancers are operable cancers that can be removed completely by surgery.
Unilateral cancers affect only one side of the body. For example, unilateral breast cancer affects only one breast.
If you hear your medical team use words that aren’t familiar to you, be sure to ask for an explanation. Your team will be happy to help. You can also find a glossary of cancer terms at http://bit.ly/28KKMv4.
– L. Russell
For more information, ask your physician, call askMDAnderson at 877-632-6789, or visit www.mdanderson.org.
OncoLog, July 2016, Volume 61, Issue 7