A Guide to Cancer Surgery

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Planning and preparing for cancer surgery

There are things you can do before surgery to help make sure you have the best chance for a good outcome. As much as is possible, you need to know what to expect and be comfortable that the decision you’ve made is the best one for you. People differ about how involved they want to be in the decision-making process. But knowing as much as you can about what lies ahead can, at the very least, help reduce your stress level.

It’s not unusual for patients to wait a few weeks after learning they have cancer to have surgery, although this depends on the type of cancer and other factors. In most cases, you will have time to:

  • Learn more about the cancer
  • Talk to others who have had cancer
  • Explore your treatment options
  • Organize your thoughts
  • Find the right health care team for you

You also may want a second opinion. Insurance pre-approval for the surgery may be needed and this, too, takes time. In almost all cases, the time needed to prepare for surgery should have no impact on the success of the surgery. But if you do have some type of urgent medical problem, surgery will be done as soon as possible.

Informed consent

Informed consent is one of the most important parts of getting ready for surgery. It’s a process during which you are told about all aspects of the surgery before you give your doctor written permission to do it. The details of the informed consent form may vary from state to state, but it usually says that your doctor has explained these things:

  • Your condition or diagnosis and why surgery is an option
  • The goal of the surgery
  • How the surgery is to be done
  • How it may benefit you
  • What the risks are
  • What side effects to expect
  • What other treatment options you have

When you sign the consent form you are saying that you have received this information, you understand it, and you are willing to have the surgery. It also means you understand there’s no guarantee that the surgery will work.

It’s important that you read the consent form and understand each of the above issues before signing it. Make sure your doctor answers all of your questions and that you understand the answers. Having a family member or friend go over the consent form with you may also be helpful.

Please see our document called Informed Consent if you’d like to learn more about this process.

Pre-operative testing

In most cases, you’ll need many tests in the days or weeks before your surgery, especially if a major operation is planned. These tests are done to make sure your body is able to go through surgery and the drugs that will be used. They may also be done to help doctors better understand your condition and help them plan the surgery. You may not need all of the tests listed here (especially if you are having a minor procedure in a doctor’s office). But the tests most often used include:

  • Blood tests to measure your blood cell counts, your risk of bleeding or infection, and how well your liver and kidneys are working. Your blood type may also be checked in case you need blood transfusions during the operation.
  • Urine test (urinalysis) to look at how well your kidneys are working and check for infection.
  • Chest x-ray to check your lungs.
  • EKG (electrocardiogram) to check your heart’s electrical system.
  • Other tests as needed, such as CT scans, MRIs, or PET scans to look at the size and location of the tumors and see if the cancer looks like it has spread to nearby tissues. You can learn more about these scans in Imaging (Radiology) Tests.

Your doctor will also ask you questions about your health, including things like high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes, alcohol and tobacco use, and anything else that could affect surgery. Your doctor should know about all the medicines you take, including vitamins, herbs, and even the drugs you only take every now and then. It’s also important that you let your doctor know about any allergic reactions you’ve had in the past, including reactions to foods or other substances.

If you use tobacco:

Using tobacco tightens (constricts) blood vessels and reduces the supply of nutrients and oxygen to body tissues. With any surgery, smoking can delay healing. This can cause more noticeable scars and a longer recovery time.

Your surgeon may change some of the medicines you take and ask you to stop smoking, stop drinking alcohol, try to improve your diet, lose weight, or actively exercise before surgery.

Remember: If you don’t tell your doctor about a possible problem you have (for instance, a bleeding disorder or heart problems) or medicines you are taking (including herbs and supplements), it could lead to dangerous problems during surgery.

If you are going to be given drugs to put you into a deep sleep (general anesthesia), you will probably also see a doctor who specializes in giving anesthesia, called an anesthesiologist. Other specialists may be consulted or other tests done if you have any other problems that could affect the surgery.

Getting ready for surgery

Depending on the type of operation you’re going to have, there may be things you need to do to be ready for surgery.

Emptying your stomach and bowels is important if you’ll be given drugs to make you sleep during surgery (anesthesia). Vomiting while under anesthesia can be very dangerous because the vomit could get into your lungs and cause an infection. Because of this, you’ll be asked to not eat or drink anything starting the night before the surgery. You may also be asked to use a laxative or an enema to make sure your bowels are empty.

You may need to have an area of your body shaved to keep hair from getting into the surgical cut. The area will be cleaned before the operation to reduce the risk of infection. Other special preparations may be needed, too. Your doctor will tell you what you need to do.

It’s normal to be anxious about surgery and anesthesia. Let your doctors know about these concerns. They may give you medicine to help you relax before surgery.

Last Medical Review: 09/03/2014
Last Revised: 09/29/2014