What is Cancer Surgery?

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 04/2018

It is common for people to feel nervous or worried as their surgery approaches. Knowing what to expect before, during, and after the procedure can help you prepare and feel more at ease.

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:

A surgeon or surgical oncologist will lead your surgical team. The type of surgeon you see is based on the type and stage of your cancer. Below are a few examples of different types of surgeons:

  • Urologists and urologic oncologists specialize in treating urologic cancers. This includes prostate cancer, testicular cancer, bladder cancer, and kidney cancer.

  • Neurosurgeons treat brain cancer.

  • Thoracic surgeons treat lung cancer and esophageal cancer.

  • Dermatologic surgeons treat some types of skin cancer.

An anesthesiologist cares for people right before, during, and after surgery by giving anesthesia. Anesthesia is medication that blocks your awareness of pain during surgery. It may make you unconscious. This doctor 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.

A certified registered nurse anesthetist monitors your vital signs. He or she also works with the anesthesiologist to modify the anesthesia.

Operating room nurses assist the surgeon during surgery.

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

Other team members include:

  • Pharmacists

  • Social workers

  • Nutritionists or dietitians

  • Physical therapists

Before your surgery

There are several steps that may need to happen beforehand to make sure you are prepared and ready to have surgery.

Checking with your insurance provider. Learn whether you need to get preapproval of insurance coverage before the 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.

  • Evaluate the need for surgery.

  • Talk with you about the risks, benefits, and possible alternatives to surgery.

  • Give you instructions for care after returning home.

  • Answer any questions you have about the surgery.

Giving permission for surgery. Your surgical 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. Talk with your health care team to learn which tests you will need before surgery. Some examples include:

Quitting smoking. If you smoke, you are encouraged to quit smoking at least 2 weeks before surgery. This can help your body recover more quickly after surgery. Ask your health care team about resources to help you quit.

Avoiding certain foods and drinks. Ask your health care team 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 will tell you if you should stop taking them before surgery.

What to wear and bring

Consider these tips:

  • You may need to remove clothing or jewelry that could interfere with the surgery. Consider leaving jewelry and other valuables at home or with a family member in the waiting area.

  • Wear your eyeglasses on the morning of your surgery, rather than contact lenses. It is easier to remove your glasses before surgery. You can bring your contact lenses, case, and solution to use after surgery.

  • You may be asked not to wear makeup on the day of your surgery.

Arranging after-care and follow-up

Consider bringing a family member or friend on the day of surgery. Afterward, your doctor can provide him or her with an update about how it went. They can also help you get home from the hospital and provide after-care at home.

Consider making your follow-up care appointments before surgery.

During surgery

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

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

  • Regional anesthesia blocks pain in a larger part of the body. This is done by numbing the nerves in and around the area that needs surgery. People who have regional anesthesia may receive conscious sedation. This is also called monitored anesthesia care. It helps the person relax and sometimes sleep during the procedure.

  • General anesthesia makes a person unconscious during a major surgery. It is given through one of the following ways:

    • A face mask

    • An intravenous (IV) needle placed in a vein in your arm

    • A combination of both

During this procedure, an anesthesiologist places a tube in your throat. This helps you breath, provides oxygen, and sometimes delivers anesthesia. He or she also 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 surgery.

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.

After surgery

After surgery, your surgical team will move you to the recovery area. Recovery time depends on the type of surgery and the type of anesthesia used:

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

  • After regional anesthesia with conscious sedation, your team will monitor you carefully in a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off. This usually takes about 1 to 2 hours. You may feel groggy for some time after surgery.

  • After general anesthesia, your team will monitor you carefully in a recovery room until the anesthesia wears off. This usually takes 1 to 2 hours. You may feel:

    • Groggy

    • Sore in your throat from the tube

    • Sore at the site of surgery or if you had a catheter. A catheter is a tube placed in the bladder to allow urine to exit your body.

    • Pain as you wake up. 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.

Make sure to follow all recovery instructions from your health care team.

Tips for recovering from surgery

  • 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 people can begin as early as the day after surgery. Make sure you follow the specific directions given by your doctor and physical therapist.

  • Perform deep breathing exercises. This helps re-expand your lungs and lowers the risk of pneumonia.

  • Talk with your nurse or hospital dietitian about getting the right nutrition. They can also help you return to eating your regular foods.

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

  • Watch for unusual bleeding, infections, and allergic reactions to anesthesia or drugs. This includes nausea, shortness of breath, and dizziness. Your health care team will explain the signs and symptoms to watch for. And they will tell you when to contact your health care team.

  • Ask your doctor or nurse when and how to change your bandage. This is also called the dressing. A bandage helps a surgical incision heal and guards against infection. But leaving it on too long may delay healing or cause infection.

  • Contact your health team if you develop:

    • Fever

    • Excessive drainage from your surgical incision

    • Redness or excessive swelling at your incision site

    • Persistent nausea and vomiting

Related Resources

How Cancer is Treated

What is Cancer Surgery?

Side Effects of Surgery