Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families

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During the operation

Again, although each type of surgical procedure is different, they usually have certain things in common.


Anesthesia (an-es-THEE-zhuh) is the use of drugs to make you unable to feel pain for a period of time. Depending on the type and extent of the operation, you may get drugs to make you sleep, too. In some cases, you may have an option as to which type of anesthesia you prefer.

Local anesthesia is often used for minor surgeries, such as biopsies (by-op-sees) near the body surface. A needle is used to put medicine into the area beforehand. This numbs the nerves that cause pain. You stay awake and usually feel only pressure during the procedure.

Topical anesthesia is a type of local anesthesia that is rubbed or sprayed onto a body surface instead of being put in with a needle. For example, an anesthesia spray is sometimes used to numb the throat before a scope is passed down to the stomach or lungs.

Regional anesthesia (a nerve block or spinal anesthesia) numbs a larger area of the body, but you stay awake. A needle is used to put medicine into an area around the spinal cord, which affects certain nerves coming out of it. But a nerve block may also mean injecting medicine around nerves in the arms or legs. The location the injection is given will depend on what area needs to be numb. Medicine may be given as a single injection or as an ongoing infusion. While you do stay awake, you may be given something to help you relax.

General anesthesia puts you into a deep sleep for the surgery. It’s often started by having you breathe in a drug through a face mask or by putting a drug into a vein in your arm. Once you are asleep, an endotracheal (en-doe-TRAKE-ee-ul) or ET tube is put in your throat to make it easy for you to breathe. Your heart rate, breathing rate, and blood pressure (vital signs) will be closely watched during the surgery. A doctor or nurse who specializes in giving anesthesia watches you throughout the procedure and until you wake up. They also take out the ET tube when the operation is over.

Last Medical Review: 08/19/2013
Last Revised: 08/19/2013