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Cancer of unknown primary

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Surgery for cancer of unknown primary

Surgery is sometimes used to treat cancer of unknown primary (CUP). With CUP, the cancer has already spread beyond the place where it started, so surgery may not be helpful. However, surgery may be used to:

  • treat the cancer by completely removing the tumour
    • Surgery may be done to remove the lymph nodes (lymph node dissection) if this is the only place that the cancer has spread. For example, surgery may be an option if the person has:
      • a squamous cell carcinoma of unknown primary in lymph nodes of the neck or groin
      • adenocarcinoma of unknown primary in lymph nodes under the arm
    • Surgery may be an option if the cancer is only found in one organ and doctors think it can be removed by surgery (resectable). For example, surgery may be an option for people with a CUP metastasis in the liver who are well enough to have an operation, have very little disease in the liver and have no other metastases.
  • remove as much of the tumour as possible before using other treatments
    • Surgery may be done to remove as much of the tumour as possible in women with cancer of unknown primary in the lining of the abdomen (peritoneum) before chemotherapy is given.
  • reduce pain or ease symptoms associated with a CUP (palliative treatment)

The type of surgery done depends mainly on the size and location of the cancer and other factors, such as a person’s overall health. Side effects of surgery depend on the type of surgical procedure.

Radiation therapy, and possibly chemotherapy, is sometimes given after surgery to destroy any cancer cells that may have been left behind.

See a list of questions to ask your doctor about surgery.

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