Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Does surgery cause cancer to spread?

In nearly all cases, surgery does not cause cancer to spread. Still, there are some important situations when this can happen. Doctors who have a lot of experience in treating cancer with surgery are very careful to avoid these situations.

The chances that using a small needle to remove a piece of the tissue (called a needle biopsy [by-op-see]) may cause a cancer to spread are very low. In the past, larger needles were used for biopsies, and the chance of spread was higher.

Most types of cancers can be safely sampled by an incisional biopsy (in-sih-zhun-ul by-op-see), where the surgeon cuts through the skin to remove a small part of the tumor. But there are a few exceptions, such as certain tumors in the eyes or in the testicles. For these types of cancer, doctors may treat without looking at a piece of the tumor (biopsy) or may recommend removing the entire tumor if it’s likely to be cancer. In some cases a needle biopsy can be safely used, and then if the tumor is found to be cancer, the whole tumor is removed by surgery.

One common myth about cancer is that it will spread if it’s exposed to air during surgery. Some people may believe this because they often feel worse after surgery than they did before. But it’s normal to feel this way when beginning to recover from any surgery. Another reason people may believe this is because during surgery the doctor may find more cancer than was expected from scans and x-rays. This can happen, but it’s not because of the surgery – the cancer was already there – it just didn’t show up on the tests that were done. Cancer does not spread because it has been exposed to air. If you delay or refuse surgery because of this myth, then you may be harming yourself by passing up effective treatment.

Last Medical Review: 08/19/2013
Last Revised: 08/19/2013