What to Expect When Having Surgery

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 07/2016

Watch the Cancer.Net Video: Basics of Cancer Surgery with Robert Sticca, MD, adapted from this content.

Your surgical team

If you need surgery, a team of highly trained medical professionals will work together to give you the best possible care. Your team may include the following people:

Surgeon or surgical oncologist. This is the doctor who will lead your surgical team. The type of surgeon you see is based on the type and stage of cancer. Below are some examples of different types of surgeons. However, there are other types of surgeons that are not listed here. In addition, general surgeons also perform a variety of cancer surgeries.

  • Urologists and urologic oncologists. These professionals specialize in treating urologic cancers with surgery. Urologic cancers include prostate, testicular, bladder, and kidney cancers.

  • Neurosurgeons. This type of surgeon treats brain cancers with surgery.

  • Thoracic surgeons. These are the doctors who treat lung and esophageal cancers with surgery.

  • Dermatologic surgeons. This type of surgeon treats some types of skin cancer.

Anesthesiologist. An anesthesiologist is a doctor who cares for patients immediately before, during, and after surgery by giving anesthesia. Anesthesia is medication that blocks your awareness of pain during surgery and may make you unconscious. An anesthesiologist also monitors your vital signs, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. And, he or she identifies and treats any problems related to anesthesia that may happen during surgery and recovery.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist (also called a CRNA). A nurse anesthetist may monitor your vital signs and modify the anesthesia as needed with the direction of the anesthesiologist.

Operating room nurse (also called an OR nurse). OR nurses assist the surgeon during surgery.

Recovery room nurses and staff. Recovery room nurses care for and monitor patients who have had major or minor surgery.

Other health care professionals. Other team members include pharmacists, social workers, nutritionists or dietitians, and physical therapists. Learn more about the oncology team.

Before you have surgery

Meeting your surgical team. Before surgery, you will meet with the surgeon or surgical team. They will review your medical record, do a physical examination, and evaluate the need for surgery.

Giving permission for surgery. Your surgeon or surgical team will talk with you about the risks and benefits of the surgery. They will also discuss possible alternatives to surgery. If you choose to have the surgery, your team will ask you to sign an informed consent form. Signing means:

  • You give written permission for treatment.

  • Your team gave you information on your surgery and other options.

  • You choose to have surgery.

  • You understand that the surgery is not guaranteed to give the intended results.

Testing before surgery. Before surgery, you may need certain tests. Talk with your doctor to learn which tests you will need. Some examples are listed below.

Quitting smoking. If you smoke, you are encouraged to quit smoking at least 2 weeks before surgery. Quitting smoking can help your body recover more quickly after surgery.

Avoiding certain foods and drinks. Talk with your doctor to learn what you should or should not eat or drink during the 24 hours before surgery.

Taking medications. Tell your surgical team about any medications and dietary or herbal supplements you are taking. This includes any prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs. Your doctor and anesthesiologist will tell you whether to continue taking those medications before surgery and when to stop taking them.

What to wear and bring. When you arrive at the hospital, you may need to remove clothing or jewelry that could interfere with the surgery. Then, change into a hospital gown. Leave jewelry and other valuables at home or with a family member in the waiting area. Also, wear your eyeglasses on the morning of your surgery, rather than contact lenses. It is easier to remove your glasses before surgery. You may choose to bring your contact lenses, case, and solution to use once you are recovering from surgery. Usually, you will also be asked not to wear makeup on the day of the surgical procedure.

Other considerations.

  • Check with your insurance provider to learn whether you need to get preapproval of insurance coverage before the surgery.

  • If there is a risk of blood loss during surgery and your procedure is more than 4 weeks away, ask your surgical team if you should have your blood drawn and stored in case it is needed during surgery.

  • Consider bringing a family member or friend on the day of surgery. After the surgery, your doctor will provide him or her with an update about how it went.

  • Arrange for care during your recovery phase, including transportation home from the hospital.

  • If you have any questions, clarify instructions with the surgical care team. Also, make sure you receive instructions for your care after returning home.

  • Consider making your follow-up care appointments before surgery.

  • Ask about when after surgery you may begin to resume usually physical activity.

During surgery

You will likely receive some type of anesthesia during surgery. There are different types of anesthesia depending on the type surgery.

  • Local anesthesia is an injection that numbs the area that needs surgery. Local anesthesia is used for procedures done in a doctor’s office, such as the removal of a mole.

  • Regional anesthesia blocks pain in one larger part of the body. Usually, this is done by numbing the nerves in and around the area where surgery is needed. Patients who have regional anesthesia may receive conscious sedation, also called monitored anesthesia care. This helps the patient relax and sometimes sleep during the procedure.

  • General anesthesia makes a person unconscious during a major procedure. General anesthesia is given through a face mask, an intravenous (IV) needle placed in a vein in your arm, or a combination of both. The anesthesiologist then usually places a tube in your throat to help with breathing, provide oxygen, and sometimes deliver anesthesia. The anesthesiologist carefully monitors your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen during the operation. Generally, you are not aware of anything until the anesthesia wears off after the operation.

Learn more details about these types of anesthesia.

After you receive anesthesia, your surgical team will clean and shave the area of your body where surgery is needed. This helps reduce the risk of infection.

Once surgery is finished, you will be moved to the recovery area.

After surgery

Recovery time usually depends on the type of surgery and the type of anesthesia given during surgery.

After local anesthesia. If you had local anesthesia, you may be able to go home shortly after the procedure.

After regional anesthesia. If you had regional anesthesia with conscious sedation, you will need to be monitored carefully in a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off. It usually takes about 1 to 2 hours for the anesthesia to wear off. You may feel groggy for some time after surgery.

After general anesthesia. You will need to be monitored carefully in a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off in 1 to 2 hours. In addition to feeling groggy, you may have soreness in your throat from the anesthesia tube. You may also feel soreness if there are tubes at the site of surgery for draining excess fluid or if you had a catheter. A catheter is a tube placed in the bladder to allow urine to exit your body. You may also become aware of pain as you awaken. Your health care team will give you medicine to relieve the pain. When your condition is stable, you will be taken to your hospital room or allowed to return home.

Before you leave the hospital, schedule follow-up appointments so that your doctor can monitor your ongoing recovery. It is also important to follow recovery instructions from your doctor or nurse.

Tips for recovering from surgery

The following suggestions may help speed recovery:

  • Ask your doctor about physical activity after your surgery. It is important to walk as soon as you can to circulate blood and prevent clots.

  • Ask for a referral to a physical therapist, if needed. Physical therapy may be an important part of your recovery. It can help build strength and flexibility, and some patients can begin as early as the day after surgery. You may receive a home exercise program, but it is important to follow the specific directions given by your doctor and physical therapist.

  • Perform deep breathing exercises to help re-expand your lungs and lower the risk of pneumonia if your doctor recommends it.

  • Do not smoke during recovery. If you do smoke, talk with your health care team about resources to help you quit smoking.

  • Talk with your nurse or hospital dietitian about getting the right nutrition and returning to your regular foods.

  • Let your doctor and nurse know if you are in pain so they can help you to manage it.

  • Watch for unusual bleeding, infections, and allergic reactions to anesthesia or drugs, including nausea, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Your health care team will explain the signs and symptoms to watch for and when to contact your health care team about them.

  • If you develop a fever, excessive drainage from your surgical incision, redness or excessive swelling at your incision site, or persistent nausea and vomiting, contact your health care team.

  • Ask your doctor or nurse when and how to change your bandage, also called the dressing. Although a bandage is used to help a surgical incision heal and guard against infection, leaving it on too long may delay healing or lead to infection.

More Information

How Cancer is Treated

What is Cancer Surgery?

Side Effects of Surgery