Can surgery spread cancer?

Last Modified: December 8, 2002


Dear OncoLink "Ask The Experts,"
My husband was diagnosed with Stage III colon cancer-he has had chemo and radiation. He developed incisional hernias and is scheduled to have them repaired. I am paranoid about this surgery because someone told me that having surgery after you are diagnosed with cancer is a way for the cancer to spread -is this true? I am embarassed to ask the Doctor but I am can't stop thinking about what they told me.  


Carolyn Vachani RN, MSN, AOCN, OncoLink's Medical Correspondent, responds:

For starters, don't ever be embarrassed to ask a question of your husband's doctor. No question is stupid! If this doctor makes you feel stupid asking questions, then find a new one. Learning about the disease and it's treatments can only make you better prepared to make decisions.

Doctors have been performing colon cancer resections (removal of the tumor and nearby lymph nodes) for many years through a long incision in the abdomen, a surgery called laparotomy. More recently, some surgeons started performing these resections through small holes in the abdomen, a procedure called laproscopic surgery. This surgery requires less healing time then the conventional laparotomy. Doctors were concerned that removing the tumor and the surgical equipment through these small holes could leave behind cancer cells in the hole, causing the tumor to grow there. Although there is a small chance of tumor cells being deposited in a wound and tumors growing, the risk is very small. If the patient did not have surgery, the tumor would continue to grow in the body causing countless problems. There have been a few studies showing patients that undergo laproscopic surgery by trained physicians do not appear to be at higher risk of recurrence of cancer. Clinical trials are ongoing to answer the question of which type of surgery is the best option.

If your friend was referring to spreading the tumor cells in the air, this is not possible. Tumor cells spread by moving into the lymph nodes that are near the original tumor. From there they can get into the blood stream, which can carry them to other areas of the body. These cells cannot travel in the air and cannot be spread to another person.

Hopefully this will put your mind at ease, but if you have more questions, be sure to ask your doctor!