Having surgery can be an overwhelming experience - not just the surgery itself, but the process of getting ready to have surgery, as well as recovering afterwards. But it's not always as difficult as you might fear. Your experience will depend on many things, including the type of cancer you have, the type of operation being done, and your overall health. Knowing what to expect and being prepared can help. It's important to:
How soon you might need to have surgery after a cancer diagnosis can vary. It depends on the type of cancer and other factors. Sometimes cancer surgery needs to happen as soon as possible. Other times, waiting a while is not a problem. And sometimes you might need chemotherapy or radiation before having surgery. It's not unusual for patients to wait a few weeks after learning they have cancer to have surgery. Talk to your doctor and others on your health care team about how long to wait before having surgery. Don't be afraid to ask questions! You might want to ask if you have time to think about other options or get a second opinion.
Before surgery is called the pre-operative phase. There are many kinds of surgical procedures. But almost all types of operations have certain steps in common during the pre-operative phase.
Your health care team will give you details of the surgery before you give permission for them to do it. This is called informed consent. Sometimes details about informed consent vary from state to state, but your health care team will most likely do the following:
You might want to ask your health care team, doctor, or surgeon some of the questions listed here, if you don't hear the information first, or if you need to understand it better. The answers might help you feel better about your decision and know what to expect.
Tobacco: If you smoke, your surgeon may ask you to stop before surgery. Using tobacco tightens (constricts) blood vessels and reduces the supply of oxygen to your body tissues. Smoking can delay healing and recovery. It can also increase the risk of complications after surgery.
Diet and alcohol: Being overweight or obese may affect surgery and recovery. Your surgeon may ask you to improve your diet, lose weight, or actively exercise before surgery. You may be advised to stop drinking alcohol, too.
Medications: Often the surgeon will ask you to stop taking certain medications, such as anti-inflammatory pain medications and blood thinners. This is because those medications can increase your risk of bleeding during the surgery.
Other drugs: Be sure to tell your doctor and surgeon about all medications, including vitamins, supplements, and marijuana or street drugs you may use. Some of these may lead to problems before and after surgery.
Anesthesia history: You will probably be asked if you or your family members have had problems in the past with anesthesia. This is because there are things that can be done to prevent problems, such as nausea, vomiting, and being overly sleepy after getting anesthesia.
You'll probably need some tests so your health care team can understand your overall health and to find out if you can tolerate surgery. The tests you might need will depend on your situation, but here are some of the common tests that might be done:.
Usually a "prep" is needed before surgery that involves getting anesthesia. You will most likely be told to stop eating food and drinking liquids at a certain time before surgery. Sometimes you will be told to stop eating solid foods at a certain time, and then liquids will be stopped later. Some surgeries require you to take a laxative or enema beforehand to be sure your bowels are empty. You may need to have an area of your body shaved before surgery to keep hair away from the surgical site and your skin will be cleaned well before the operation to reduce the risk of infection.
Anesthesia makes 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 a choice as to which type of anesthesia you prefer.
How fast you recover from surgery depends on the kind of surgery you had and your overall health. Be sure to ask your health care team what you might expect in the period right after your surgery.
Your throat may be sore for a while if you had an endotracheal (ET) tube. You might also have tube (called a Foley catheter) draining urine from your bladder into a bag. This is usually taken out as soon as possible after surgery to prevent infection..
You may have a tube or tubes (called drains) coming out of the surgical opening in your skin. Drains allow the excess fluid that collects at the surgery site to leave the body. Your doctor will take them out as soon as possible when they stop collecting fluid, depending on the type of surgery you had.
You may not feel like eating or drinking after surgery, but this is an important part of the recovery process. Your health care team may start you out with ice chips or clear liquids. If you have a catheter collecting your urine, they will check that you are passing urine normally after they take it out. They may want to measure the amount of urine you make by having you go in a special container.
The stomach and intestines (digestive tract) is one of the last parts of the body to recover from the drugs used during surgery. You’ll need to have signs of stomach and bowel activity before you’ll be allowed to eat. Along with checking your surgical wound and other parts of your body, your doctor or nurse will listen for bowel sounds in your belly and will ask if you have passed gas. These are signs that your digestive tract is starting to work normally again. You will probably be on a clear liquid diet until this happens. Once it does, you may get to try solid foods.
Your health care team will probably try to have you move around as soon as possible after surgery. Sometimes they will even have you walk or go to physical therapy the same day or next day. While moving around or getting used to the devices may be hard at first, these things help speed your recovery by getting your digestive tract moving, helps your circulation, and helps prevent blood clots. Again, be sure to let your team know if you’re having pain that is affecting your activity, so they can give you medicine to control it.
Some patients will have devices wrapped around their legs that squeeze gently and release every so often to also help your circulation and prevent blood clots.
Your team may also encourage you to do deep breathing exercises. You might have a device called a spirometer that you will need to use. This helps fully inflate your lungs and reduces the risk of lung infection (pneumonia).
Discharge planning to go home or to another setting will start very soon after surgery. The plans get more final once you’re eating, drinking, and walking. Of course, this will depend on other factors too, such as the results of the surgery and tests done afterward.
Pain control is important, both while you are in the hospital, and at home if you need it. If you’re in pain, be sure to let your health care team know.
Before you are discharged, be sure that you understand these things:
Recovery is different for everyone. Wounds heal at different rates, and some operations are more involved than others. You may need help at home for a while after surgery. If family members or friends are unable to do all that’s needed, your health care team may be able to arrange to have a nurse or nurse’s aide visit you at home for a short while.
Fully understanding the likely result of the operation before it’s done is an important part of helping you adjust to the changes that have been made to your body. It is completely normal to need to take time to get used to any permanent changes in your body. Sometimes these changes can be really hard to get used to, and it's ok to feel sad or angry about them. Your health care team is ready to help you with those feelings, and won’t be surprised if you tell them that you feel this way. It’s important to let your care team know if you are feeling. Be as specific as you need to with your questions, and make sure your health care team gives answers you can understand.
At this time, you’re probably more in tune with your body than you’ve ever been in your life. You notice every physical change. Don’t take any physical symptoms you may have lightly. Be sure you know how to contact your health care team members after hours and on weekends and holidays.
Some surgery side effects may come and go quickly, but others may be a sign of serious problems. Tell your doctor or nurse right away if you suffer from any of the following symptoms after surgery:
Don’t hesitate to let your doctor know about any new problems or concerns you have. It’s always best to find out the cause of a problem so it can be dealt with right away.
Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.
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Davidson G, Lester J, Routt M. (Eds.). Surgical oncology nursing. Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2014.
Eggert J. (Ed). Cancer Basics. (2nd ed.). Pittsburgh, PA: Oncology Nursing Society; 2017.
Fukushima R, Kaibori M. (Eds.). Enhanced recovery after surgery. Singapore: Springer; 2018.
National Cancer Institute (NCI). Surgery to treat cancer. Accessed at https://www.cancer.gov/about-cancer/treatment/types/surgery on October 2, 2019.
Last Revised: October 2, 2019