Surgery for childhood cancer

Surgery for childhood cancer

Surgery is one type of treatment used in the care of children with cancer. It may be, primary surgery which removes all or most of the tumour, second look surgery which is done after treatment with chemotherapy or radiation, and supportive care surgery which is done to help with some aspects of a child's care.

What is surgery?

Surgery is one type of treatment used in the care of children with cancer. It is done by a surgeon in the operating theatre. The role that surgery plays depends on the type, location and extent of the cancer.

The different types of surgery are:

  • primary surgery
  • second look surgery
  • supportive care surgery

Primary surgery

Primary surgery removes all or most of the tumour (a group of cancer cells) at the time of diagnosis. Sometimes the tumour is too big to remove or is in an area of the body from where it cannot be safely removed. In these cases primary surgery is done after chemotherapy or radiation therapy is given to help reduce the size of the tumour.

Second look surgery

Second look surgery is done after treatment with chemotherapy or radiation. The surgeon is able to see how well the treatments have worked in killing the cancer cells, and may be able to take out the remaining tumour.

Supportive care surgery

Supportive care surgery is done to help with some aspects of a child's care. It can include:

  • putting in a central venous catheter that can be used to give chemotherapy or to obtain blood samples (see Central venous catheters)
  • putting in a gastrostomy tube. This is inserted through the abdominal wall directly into the stomach to provide nutrition if a child is unable to take enough food by mouth for an extended period of time. There is information about gastrostomy feeding in Nasogastric and gastrostomy feeding in childhood cancer

Does surgery hurt?

Your child will feel nothing and will be aware of nothing during the operation because they will have a general anaesthetic and will be asleep.

After the operation, pain is managed by medicines prescribed by the anaesthetist or another doctor. The anaesthetist is the doctor who gives the anaesthetic and whose main concern is to ensure the safety and comfort of your child before, during and after surgery.

What happens before surgery?

The anaesthetist will meet with your child and family before the surgery, to discuss all aspects of the anaesthetic including risks and benefits, explain how it will be given, answer questions and obtain written consent for it to be done.

It may be possible for you (the parent / caregiver) to accompany your child into the operating room and stay until your child is asleep. The presence of a confident parent / caregiver can help reduce the fear associated with a strange environment. Preparation before procedures helps parents / caregivers to gain confidence. There are suggestions and ideas for good preparation in:

When an operation is being done under a general anaesthetic, your child's stomach must be empty. This is to reduce the risk of stomach contents getting into your child's lungs while they are unconscious. Instructions about fasting from food and drink will be given to you and your child by the anaesthetist and your child's nurse. For your child's safety, the instructions must be followed exactly.

What can you do?


All the fact sheets in the Childhood cancer section of this website have been written by health professionals who work in the field of paediatric oncology. They have been reviewed by the members of the National Child Cancer Network (NZ). Medical information is authorised by the National Child Cancer Network Clinical Leader.

This page last reviewed 01 May 2013.
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