The physiological stress response to surgery promotes wound healing and functional recovery and includes the activation of neural, inflammatory and proangiogenic signaling pathways. Paradoxically, the same pathways also promote metastatic spread and growth of residual cancer. Human and animal studies show that cancer surgery can increase survival, migration and proliferation of residual tumor cells. To secure the survival and growth of disseminated tumor cells, the formation of premetastatic niches in target organs involves a complex interplay between microenvironment, immune system, circulating tumor cells, as well as chemical mediators and exosomes secreted by the primary tumor. This review describes the current understanding of the early mechanisms of dissemination, as well as how surgery may facilitate disease progression.