Surgery for Gastrointestinal Stromal Tumor

The main treatment for a gastrointestinal stromal tumor (GIST) that hasn’t spread is usually surgery. The goal of the surgery is to remove all of the cancer.

If the tumor is small, it often can be removed along with a small area of normal tissue around it. This is done through a cut (incision) in the skin, but the exact type of surgery depends on where the tumor is. Unlike many other cancers, GIST almost never spreads to the lymph nodes, so removing nearby lymph nodes is usually not needed.

For some small cancers, “keyhole” (laparoscopic) surgery is an option. Instead of making a large incision in the skin to remove the tumor, the surgeon makes several small ones. Through one incision, the doctor inserts a thin lighted tube (with a tiny video camera) called a laparoscope. This allows him or her to see inside the belly. He or she then uses long, thin surgical tools to remove the tumor through the other incisions. Because the incisions are small, patients usually recover more quickly from this type of surgery than from traditional surgery that requires an incision several inches long.

If the tumor is large or growing into other organs, the surgeon could still try to remove it entirely. To do this, the doctor might have to remove parts of organs (such as sections of the intestines). The surgeon might also remove GISTs that have spread elsewhere in the abdomen, such as the liver (see the next section).

Another treatment for tumors that are large or have grown into nearby areas is to first give the patient the drug imatinib (see “ Targeted therapy for gastrointestinal stromal tumor”) to try to shrink the tumor to make it easier to remove with surgery.

No matter what type of surgery is done, it is very important that it is done carefully by a surgeon with experience treating GISTs. GISTs are often delicate tumors, and surgeons must be careful not to open the lining that surrounds them (known as the capsule), because it might increase the risk of spreading the cancer. GISTs also tend to have a lot of blood vessels, so your surgeon will be careful to control any bleeding from the tumor.

For more information about surgery, see Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: April 4, 2014 Last Revised: February 8, 2016

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