If you or a family member needs surgery to treat cancer, you probably feel some anxiety or fear. Everyone does. My patients often express concerns about post-operative pain, complications, recovery and likelihood of long-term health after surgery.
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But I want to tell you that cancer treatment has come a long way. And I also want to offer advice about choosing a surgeon and hospital so you can have the best result.
What 5 things should you do if you need cancer surgery?
1. Get a second opinion
A second opinion offers different perspectives. Various surgeons and treatment teams may have different opinions about the best approach to your disease, including the role of surgery and the best type of surgery for treatment.
With more perspectives, you can weigh the information and decide for yourself where to have your surgery and who you think would be best to perform it.
2. Be a student of your disease
Understand the available treatment options. For example, what are the pros and cons of mastectomy vs. partial mastectomy for breast cancer? What are the potential complications of each operation? What is the recovery for each? What are the short- and long-term side effects of different operations and treatments?
Ask these sorts of questions and take initiative to research the answers, whether by asking your surgeon or care team or finding credible sources online or in books.
Being knowledgeable allows for better dialogue and shared decision making with your surgeon and also helps with planning your recovery and survivorship after treatment.
3. Find a surgeon with experience and training
Has your surgeon had significant experience in the operation that you are considering? You need to know if he or she has specialized training (for instance in surgical oncology or gynecologic oncology) or interest in the specific type of surgery that you are considering.
Some studies show that surgeons who have performed more operations are more likely to have better results when performing complex cancer procedures. It is very reasonable to ask your surgeon about his or her experience with the proposed surgery as well as surgical results.
4. Check for a treatment team of diverse, related experience
Cancer is often best treated by multidisciplinary teams that work together to offer an integrated treatment plan.
Does your surgeon work as part of such a team? Sometimes in treating specific types of cancer, surgery may be best performed after chemotherapy, while in other cases, surgery may be performed first. Issues of timing and the role of surgery are often best addressed with a multidisciplinary team.
These teams can also help you find appropriate clinical trials. Many national organizations, such as the National Accreditation Program for Breast Centers, have recognized the importance of multidisciplinary care teams in achieving optimal results.
5. Look at the hospital, too
Where will your surgeon perform your cancer operation? Unfortunately, complications can happen after cancer surgery. Does the hospital have experience and personnel to successfully manage any complications following cancer surgery?
We know that the best results for many complex cancer operations are achieved in high-volume centers with significant experience — not only in performing operations but also successfully managing complications that can arise after major cancer surgery.
Today, cancer can be treated in many ways, including surgery, radiation therapy and chemotherapy. The type of cancer and the stage of cancer guide the decision about what therapy is best. If surgery is determined as the best route, may you choose the best surgeon, team and hospital for a successful outcome and a long-term cancer cure.
By Stephen Grobmyer, MD