What to Expect When Having Cancer Surgery

Approved by the Cancer.Net Editorial Board, 05/2023

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.

This introductory article covers what generally may happen when a person needs surgery for cancer treatment. However, there are many different types of surgical procedures, and your individual surgery may be different, including depending on the stage of cancer. Ask your health care team what you can expect before, during, and after your surgery, and be sure to follow the guidance they provide. Learn more about the basics of cancer surgery and the side effects of cancer surgery.

Who is on my surgical team?

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

Surgeon or surgical oncologist. 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. Examples of different types of surgeons in cancer care include:

  • General surgical oncologists perform most types of cancer surgery.

  • Gynecologic oncologists perform surgery for cancers of the female reproductive system, such as cervical cancer, ovarian cancer, and uterine cancer.

  • Neurosurgeons specialize in surgery for cancers in the brain or spine.

  • Thoracic surgeons specialize in surgery for cancers in the chest area, such as lungs or esophagus.

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

Anesthesiologist. This type of doctor cares for people right before, during, and after surgery by giving anesthesia. Anesthesia is a medication that blocks your awareness of pain during surgery. Some types are designed to make you unconscious. The anesthesiologist will monitor your vital signs, such as breathing, heart rate, and blood pressure. They identify and treat any problems related to anesthesia that may happen during surgery and recovery.

Certified registered nurse anesthetist. This provider will monitor your vital signs. They will also work with the anesthesiologist to modify the anesthesia, if needed.

Other advanced care providers, like oncology nurse practitioners (NPs) and oncology physician assistants (PAs). These providers meet with patients and work alongside a supervising surgical oncologist. Their responsibilities can include:

  • Giving physical examinations before and after surgery

  • Ordering and interpreting laboratory and diagnostic test results

  • Prescribing and administering medications

  • Providing education and counseling for patients and families

Operating room nurses. These nurses may assist the surgeon during surgery.

Surgical technologists. These professionals also assist the surgeon during surgery. They often get the operating room ready and help prepare the patient for surgery.

Recovery room nurses and staff. These providers care for and monitor people who have just had surgery as they recover.

Other health care professionals. Other team members may help care for your physical, emotional, and social needs before and after surgery. These professionals include:

  • Pharmacists

  • Social workers

  • Registered dietitian nutritionists

  • Physical therapists

Learn more about the oncology team.

What happens before cancer surgery?

There are several steps that need to happen before your surgery to make sure you are prepared and ready for your operation.

Meet with 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

  • Explain the risks, benefits, and possible alternatives to the surgery

  • Give you instructions for your care after returning home

  • Answer any questions you have

Insurance pre-approval. Check with your insurance provider to see if you need pre-approval of insurance coverage before the surgery. This is part of the financial considerations of cancer treatment.

Give permission before surgery. Your surgical team will ask you to sign an informed consent form. Signing means:

  • You give written permission for this cancer treatment

  • Your team gave you information on your surgery, its risks, and other treatment options

  • You choose to have this surgery

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

Medical testing before surgery. Talk with your health care team to learn which medical tests you will need before surgery. Some examples include:

Quit 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 tobacco after a cancer diagnosis.

Avoid certain foods and drinks. Ask your health care team about what you should or should not eat or drink in the day or days prior to your operation. Restrictions are common especially within the 24 hours before surgery. Also, ask your team beforehand if there is guidance about eating and drinking during your recovery period.

Ask your doctor about your medications. Tell your surgical team about any medications and dietary or herbal supplements you are taking. This includes all prescription drugs and over-the-counter drugs. You may need to stop taking certain medications before surgery. Some medications need to be stopped days before surgery. Others can be stopped the day before surgery or should be taken as normal. Ask when you can start retaking them. Sometimes, your doctor may recommend an alternative medication to the one you need to stop. It is important to follow your doctor's instructions exactly for stopping or taking medications before surgery. Be sure that the surgical team is aware of any medical conditions in addition to cancer and allergies that you have.

What should I wear to my surgery? What should I bring with me?

Your health care team will let you know what you should and should not wear and bring with you to your surgery. You may need to remove and store all clothing and/or jewelry, including rings, to make sure there is no interference with the surgery. Consider leaving jewelry and other valuables at home or with a family member in the waiting area.

If you wear contacts, be sure to wear eyeglasses on the morning of your surgery. It is easier to remove your glasses. You can bring your contact lenses, case, and solution to use after surgery.

You may also be asked not to wear makeup on the day of your surgery, or avoid skin lotions or creams. This depends on the type of surgery you are having so be sure to check your instructions and ask questions about anything that is unclear.

Do I need to arrange after-care and follow-up care after surgery?

Some surgery is outpatient. This means that you will go home the same day as your surgery. Other surgery requires an overnight stay in the hospital or longer, called inpatient care. Your health care team will let you know what kind of after care and support you will need at home after surgery.

For the day of your surgery, consider bringing a family member or friend. After the surgery is over, your doctor can provide them with an update about how it went. Your loved one can also help you get home from the hospital and provide after-care and other help at home. This is called caregiving.

Finally, ask your health care team if you should schedule your follow-up appointments before your surgery. If you do, you will know the next time you will see the doctor to check on your recovery. If not, be sure to ask this question of your team before leaving the place you had surgery.

What happens during cancer surgery?

The day of your surgery, the surgical team will prepare you for surgery. Some parts of surgical preparation happen before you receive anesthesia (see below) and some parts happen after. This includes removing any hair from the surgical area and cleaning your skin. This helps reduce the risk of infection, which is an important focus of follow-up care after surgery.

Depending on the extent of your surgery, your care may also include placing a catheter. A catheter is a flexible tube that is inserted into the body in order to collect urine from the bladder.

People having surgery often receive some type of anesthesia. 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.

Monitored anesthesia care helps people who have regional anesthesia may receive additional medication to help them relax during the procedure. This is called monitored anesthesia care. During monitored anesthesia care, you continue to breathe on your own and are able to respond the doctors and nurses during the procedure. But afterwards, this type of medication means you will most likely not remember much or all of the procedure.

General anesthesia makes a person unconscious and is used 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 general anesthesia, an anesthesiologist places a tube in your throat or use a device called a laryngeal mask airway. This helps you breathe, provides oxygen, and sometimes delivers anesthesia. Generally, you are not aware of anything from the time the anesthesia takes effect until it wears off after surgery is completed. People who have general anesthesia may also receive regional and/or local anesthesia to provide additional numbing or pain blocking.

For all types of anesthesia, the surgical team will monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, and oxygen throughout the operation.

During surgery, your doctor may insert one or more drains. This is because, after surgery, fluid can build up at the incision site. This can increase your risk of infection. A flexible tube with a bulb to collect fluid is placed inside the incision and then covered with a bandage. Sometimes such drains are removed before surgery is complete. Other times, the drain needs to stay in place for some time after surgery. If you will still have the drain when you leave the hospital or clinic, your health care team will let you know how to care for it once you get home. Be sure to ask any questions about your drain or your care during surgery that you have.

What happens after cancer 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 until the anesthesia wears off. How long it takes depends on the extent of your 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, but may take longer depending on the type and extent of your surgery. You may feel:

  • Groggy

  • Sore in your mouth and throat from the breathing tube or mask

  • Sore at the site of surgery.

  • 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 you follow all recovery instructions from your health care team. Let your cancer care team know how your recovery is going and alert them to specific problems or concerns. This way, they can help relieve or avoid the side effects of surgery.

Tips for recovering from cancer surgery

Consider these general tips for recovering from surgery:

  • Follow your health care team's instructions for how to care for the incision site after surgery. There may be specific things you need to do to keep this area clean and prevent infection. They will also tell you what signs of infection to look out for and when you need to contact the doctor's office.

  • Specifically, ask doctor or nurse when and how to change your bandage. This is also called the dressing. The 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 care team if you develop any of the following: a fever, too much drainage from your surgical incision, redness or excessive swelling at the incision site, and/or persistent nausea and vomiting.

  • If you had a drain inserted during your surgery, your health care team will tell you and your family caregiver how to care for it. This may include learning how to empty the drain, keeping it clean, and changing the dressing around the drain.

  • Ask your doctor about physical activity after your surgery. For instance, it is often important to walk as soon as you can to circulate blood and prevent clots.

  • Your health care team may recommend physical therapy and/or occupational therapy as an important part of your recovery. If so, you will receive a referral to a trained therapist and the timeframe. For instance, some physical therapy starts as early as the day after surgery.

  • Perform deep breathing exercises. This helps re-expand your lungs and lowers the risk of pneumonia, which is lung inflammation caused by an infection.

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

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

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

Questions to ask your health care team

  • Who is on my surgical team?

  • Which health care professionals will I see at my appointments before, during, and after surgery?

  • Where will I have surgery?

  • Will I need any tests or scans before this surgery begins?

  • Can you describe what will happen during my surgery?

  • How long will the surgery take?

  • Will I need to stay in the hospital after my surgery? If so, how long?

  • Will I need someone to drive me home after the surgery?

  • Who can I talk with about my insurance coverage for this surgery and its providers?

  • What are the common side effects of the surgery I will receive?

  • Who should I talk with about any side effects I experience?

  • How do I care for the incision(s) after surgery?

  • Will stitches or staples need to be removed after surgery? If so, can you explain what I can expect?

  • How do I care for any drain(s) that may have been placed during my surgery?

  • When should I restart any medications that I was instructed to stop taking before surgery?

  • How can I get in touch with my surgical team during office hours to answer questions I have? After regular office hours?

  • Are there any side effects I should let you know about right away or seek urgent medical care?

  • What kind of caretaking will I need at home after my surgery? Will I need help with walking around, making meals, bathing, or going to the bathroom? If so, for how long?

  • When should I start walking after surgery? What kind of exercises should I do after surgery?

  • Who can I talk with about eating well after surgery?

  • Who can I talk with if I'm feeling very anxious about having this surgery?

  • How will we know if the surgery worked?

  • What follow-up care will I need after surgery?

  • When is the next time I will see a doctor to check on me after my surgery?

Related Resources

What is Cancer Surgery?

Side Effects of Surgery

When to Call the Doctor After Cancer Treatment

How Cancer Surgery Affects People Age 65 and Older

Video: Preparing for a Medical Procedure During Cancer Diagnosis and Treatment