Understanding Cancer Surgery: A Guide for Patients and Families

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Questions to ask your doctor about cancer surgery

Before having surgery, find out all you can about the benefits, risks, and side effects of the operation. You may want to ask your doctor the questions listed here. The answers may help you feel better about your decision.

  • What’s the goal of this operation? To take out the cancer? To remove some of the tumor to test for cancer? To help with a problem the tumor is causing?
  • What are the chances it will work?
  • Is there any other way to treat the cancer or relieve the problem?
  • Do I need to get other cancer treatments (like chemotherapy or radiation) before or after surgery?
  • Other than the cancer, am I healthy enough to go through the stress of surgery and the drugs used to do it (anesthesia [an-es-THEE-zhuh])?
  • Are you certified by the American Board of Surgery and/or Specialty Surgery Board?
  • How many operations like this have you done? What’s your success rate? Are you experienced in operating on my kind of cancer?
  • Exactly what will you be doing in this operation? What will you be taking out? Why?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • Who will update my family?
  • Will I need blood transfusions?
  • What can I do to get ready for surgery?
  • What can I expect afterwards? Will I be in a lot of pain? Will I have drains or catheters? How long will I need to be in the hospital?
  • How will my body be affected by the surgery? Will it work or look different? Will any of the effects be permanent?
  • How long will it take for me to go back to my usual activities?
  • What are the possible risks and side effects of this operation? What’s the risk of death or disability?
  • What will happen if I choose not to have the operation?
  • What are the chances that the surgery will cure the cancer?
  • If this surgery doesn’t work, are there other cancer treatments I can get?
  • Will my insurance pay for this surgery?
  • Do I have time to think about my options or get a second opinion?

Here are some tips to help you remember your doctor’s answers:

  • Take notes during your visits. Don’t feel shy about asking your doctor to slow down if you need more time to write. Ask questions if you don’t understand something.
  • If you can, record your visit so you won’t miss anything. But first ask your doctor if it’s OK to record your talks.
  • Consider taking a friend or relative with you to help you understand what your doctor says during the visit and refresh your memory afterward.

You might want to look at our booklet called After Diagnosis: A Guide for Patients and Families for more ideas about the things you and your family may want to know.

Getting a second opinion

One of the ways to find out whether a suggested operation is the best choice for you may be to get the opinion of another surgeon. Your doctor should not mind this. In fact, some health insurance companies make you get a second opinion. You may not need to have tests done again because you can often bring the results of your original tests to the second doctor.

Check with your insurance company before planning surgery and before getting a second opinion. Get all of the information you need to feel sure you are making the right choice for your situation. Making an informed decision about your health is almost always better than making a quick one.


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