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surgery for metastatic cancer

Cancer 101 FAQ: I have metastatic cancer, but why can’t it just all be surgically removed, or radiated?

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One of the most common questions that emerges in a person’s first foray into metastatic cancer is often, “Why can’t a surgeon just resect all of the areas of disease?”, or a related one of “why can’t we just radiate every area of metastatic spread?”. The concept is appealing, as people would hope to remove or destroy every area of visible disease and be rid of it and cured. The problem is that metastatic cancer represents a situation in which the disease we can see is almost always accompanied by additional micrometastatic disease we can’t see, but that remains under the surface and able to create new areas of metastatic spread that prevent even our most aggressive local therapies (those directed to disease in a particular area, as opposed to systemic therapies that reach throughout the body) from being truly curative. If cure is achieved by ridding the body of any viable cancer, removing or radiating even 98 or 99% isn’t going to do the job if there is more disease below our levels of detection.

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