Surgery for Cancer

Surgery is a procedure to remove cancer from the body or repair part of the body affected by cancer. It’s sometimes called an operation or surgical resection and is performed by a surgeon.

Many cancers that are found early can be removed with surgery, and this may be the only treatment needed. However, not all cancers can be removed surgically. For some cancers, surgery is recommended as the most effective approach, either on its own or in combination with other treatments. In other cancers, non-surgical treatments have been proven to be effective.

On this page you will find information about:

How is surgery done?

The way the surgery is done (the approach or technique) depends on the type of cancer, its location, the surgeon’s training, and the equipment in the hospital/operating theatre.

Open surgery is the most traditional approach. The surgeon makes one or more cuts (incision) into the body to see and operate on the organs and remove the cancerous tissue. The size of the cut can vary from small to quite large.

Keyhole surgery – also called minimally invasive surgery, is when the surgeon makes a few small cuts in the body instead of one large cut used in open surgery. The surgeon will insert a tiny instrument with light and a camera into one of the cuts. The camera projects an image onto a TV screen so the surgeon can see the inside of your body. In many cases, keyhole surgery can lead to a shorter stay in hospital and reduce pain and recovery time.

Will I stay in hospital?

Often you will need to be admitted to hospital to have surgery. This is called inpatient care.

The length of your hospital stay depends on the type of surgery you have, the speed of your recovery and whether you have support at home after you are discharged.

It may be possible to have surgery as an outpatient (day surgery). This means you can go home soon after surgery – you don’t have to stay overnight in hospital, provided there are no complications.

What questions should I ask?

It’s important to ask questions about the type of surgery recommended to you, including the risks, possible complications and how long it will take to recover. Also remember to ask your surgeon about their training and experience.

Can surgery spread the cancer?

In some rare cases it is possible for surgery to spread the cancer. In this situation, surgeons take precautions and will still operate if the benefits of the surgery outweigh the risk of not having it.

For example, most men with testicular cancer have the entire affected testicle removed. This is because removing only part of the testicle can cause cancer cells to spread during surgery.

Some people think that cancer can spread if it’s exposed to air during surgery. This is incorrect. One reason people may believe this myth is if the surgeon finds more cancer than expected. In this case, the diagnostic tests and scans may not have shown all of the cancer, but the cancer was already there – surgery didn’t spread it.

If you are concerned about the cancer spreading during surgery, talk to your surgeon.


Whether you have been diagnosed with cancer, or have a family member or friend who is affected by cancer, there are times when you may need support. Our professional services and support programs are here to help you.

Find out more about:

You don’t have to face cancer alone – we’re here to help

For more information about surgery please refer to the Understanding Surgery booklet or order a hard copy.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 if you need more information or emotional support