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Cancer Surgery - What It Is, How It Helps

If your doctor has told you that you have cancer, you may have a lot of questions. Can I be cured? What kinds of treatment would be best for me? Will it hurt? How long will treatment take? How much will it cost? How will my life change during treatment and after treatment ends? These are all normal questions for people with cancer.

This guide will explain one type of treatment – surgery (ser-JER-ee) – a little better. We’ll try to help you know how surgery may be used and what it will be like.

If you have more questions, ask your cancer care team to help you. It’s always best to be open and honest with them. That way, they can help you decide which treatment is best for you.

Questions about cancer surgery

How is surgery used to treat cancer?

Cancer surgery can be used in a lot of ways. Here are some:

  • To take out a small piece of something that might be cancer to check it for cancer cells (This is called a biopsy. [BY-op-see])
  • To look in your body to see how much cancer there is and how far it has spread (This is called staging.)
  • To take out all of the cancer
  • To take out most of the cancer to help other treatments like chemo or radiation work better
  • To treat problems caused by the cancer, such as opening a bowel blocked by a tumor.
  • To put in devices that will help with cancer treatment, such as an IV access tube or a feeding tube
  • To help replace or fix a body part after cancer treatment, such as putting in a new part to replace a bone that was removed
  • To try to help keep a person from getting cancer, such as taking off a woman’s breasts if she is at a high risk for breast cancer, even though she doesn’t have cancer

Will surgery be my only cancer treatment?

When surgery is used to take out a cancer, other treatments  like chemo or radiation may be used after it. These treatments help kill any cancer cells that may be left behind.

Chemo or radiation may also be used before surgery. It may help shrink a tumor so it’s easier to take out.

What’s it like to have cancer surgery?

Getting ready for surgery

The surgeon  (the doctor who will do the surgery) will talk with you about the surgery planned for you. After you have talked about all the details, you will sign a consent form. This tells the surgeon you want them to do the surgery.

You’ll also talk to an anesthesiologist (AN-es-THEE-zee-AHL-uh-jist). This is the doctor or nurse. who will give you the drugs that help you relax or put you into a deep sleep during the surgery so you don’t feel pain. He or she also watches you during surgery to keep you safe.

You may need to get blood tests or other tests to make sure you’re healthy enough for surgery.

Be sure to tell your doctors about all the medicines you take. Tell them about over-the-counter drugs, vitamins, and other supplements. This is to make sure you’re not taking anything that could affect the surgery.

You will be told what you need to do the day before your surgery. You may be told not to eat after a certain time. Or you may need to shower with a special soap the doctor gives you.

What happens during cancer surgery?

On the day of surgery, you will put on a hospital gown. You will be wheeled into the operating room (OR) on a stretcher. The doctors and nurses will meet you in the OR.

For most kinds of surgery:

  • You will be moved onto the operating table.
  • You will have electrodes put on your chest to keep track of your heart rate. You will also have a blood pressure cuff put on your arm. An IV will be put into your hand or arm.
  • You will be given anesthesia through the IV tube and will go to sleep.
  • When you’re asleep, the surgeon will do the surgery.

After cancer surgery

After the surgery is done, you’ll be put back on a stretcher and taken to a recovery room. You will be watched closely as you wake up. You will be given medicine to treat pain. With some types of surgery, you might be taken to a hospital room for one or more nights.

For the first few days after surgery, you will have pain. Take your pain medicine. You need to be able to take deep breaths, cough, and move as you heal. Pain can keep you from doing these things. Tell the doctor if the medicine isn’t working.

You may have tubes coming out of your body for a few days. A catheter is a tube put into your bladder so that your urine goes into a bag outside your body. A drain is a tube put into the wound during surgery to help let extra fluid drain out. You will be taught how to deal with these tubes.

You may have bowel problems. Talk with your doctor about what you can do to help this.

Recovering at home

You may feel tired or weak for a while. The amount of time it takes to feel better is different for each person.

Your doctor or nurse will tell you what you can and can’t do when you go home.

Be sure to ask when you can take off any bandages, when you can shower or take a bath, and what you need to do to take care of the wound.

Also ask when you can drive.

What should I ask my doctor?

Your surgery will be planned just for you. Work with your cancer care team to decide what’s best for you. Ask the doctor, nurses, and others on your team about anything you don’t understand. They know the most about your surgery and why it’s needed.

Be ready. Write down your questions ahead of time. Take them with you. Don’t be afraid to say you don’t get something or need more information. Nothing you say will sound silly or strange to your cancer care team. Here are some things you might want to ask:

  • What is the goal of my surgery?
  • What will be done during surgery?
  • After surgery, will I be cured?
  • Will I need other treatment before or after surgery?
  • Are there other ways to treat my cancer besides surgery?
  • What should I do to get ready for surgery?
  • What will I look like after surgery? Will I have scars and what will they look like?
  • Will my body work the same after surgery?
  • Where will the surgery be done?
  • Will I have to stay in the hospital? If so, for how long?
  • What problems should I watch for after surgery? Should I call you if I have any of these problems – even at night or on a weekend? At what phone number?
  • Will my insurance pay for this surgery? If not, how will I pay for it?
  • How soon will I be able to go to work (or school) or be active after surgery?

What about surgery risks and side effects?

All surgery has risks. Some of the more common risks and side effects are:

  • A lot of bleeding
  • Pain
  • Infection
  • Damage to internal organs
  • Blood clots
  • Nerve damage
  • Scar tissue build up

Your chance of having side effects depends on your overall health, the type of surgery you need, and other factors. Talk with your cancer care team about any problems you’re worried about and if they might happen to you. Keep in mind that your team can only tell you what they think will happen. No one can tell you for sure that you won’t have problems during or after surgery. Even if your surgery causes problems, the “good” for you will likely outweigh the “bad” of the side effects.

Many side effects go away over time as you heal. How long it takes is different for each person. Some side effects can take longer to go away than others. Some, like nerve damage, might not go away at all. If you start to feel upset or sad about the side effects you have, be sure to talk to your doctor. Your cancer care team can help you with side effects.

What can I do to take care of myself after surgery?

During your cancer treatment, take extra care of yourself. Your cancer care team will give you tips on how to do this. But here are some things you should do:

  • Get plenty of rest. You may feel more tired during treatment. Take rest breaks when you need them.
  • Eat healthy foods. Your body needs to get enough protein and calories to make new healthy cells and heal. Your doctor, nurse, or dietitian (die-uh-TISH-un) may work with you to make sure you are eating the right foods to get what you need. If you have trouble eating or don’t feel like eating, talk to your cancer care team.
  • Be active and get fresh air if your doctor says you can. Moving around can help you breathe better and can help prevent blood clots. It can also help you feel like eating. Check with your doctor about your exercise plan to make sure it’s OK.
  • Ask your cancer care team about alcohol. Small amounts of beer or wine may help you relax and help you feel hungry. But alcohol can cause problems with some pain medicines. Your team can tell you if it’s OK to drink.
  • Check with your cancer care team before taking vitamins or supplements. There’s no “magic” diet, herb, or substance that can cure cancer, no matter what anyone claims. If you already take vitamins or supplements, tell your doctor what you take and ask if it’s OK to keep taking them.
  • Keep thinking about the treatment goals. Dealing with cancer and surgery can be hard. A good way to handle the effects of surgery is to remind yourself why you had it.
  • Learn more about your cancer and treatment. The more you know, the better you will be able to cope.

Follow-up care

No matter what type of cancer you have, after surgery you will still need to see your cancer care team. This part of your treatment is called follow-up care. They will check how you are doing and help you deal with any problems you may have. The surgeon will take out any drains, stitches, or staples, and check to see that you are healing.

After surgery, you may need more cancer treatment. Your team will talk to you about what this will be like and when the treatments will start.

When should I call the doctor?

After treatment, you may be more aware of your body and changes in how you feel from day to day. If you have any of the problems listed here, tell your cancer care team right away.

  • Pain that doesn’t go away or is getting worse
  • New lumps, bumps, redness, or swelling
  • Fever or cough that doesn’t go away
  • New black and blue marks (bruises) or bleeding
  • Any other signs your team tells you to watch for

Where can I learn more about my cancer and cancer treatment?

If you’d like to know more about cancer surgery, please call us at 1-800-227-2345 or read more online.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team
Our team is made up of doctors and master’s-prepared nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: February 9, 2017 Last Revised: February 9, 2017

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