Before your operation | Cancer Research UK
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What to expect before your operation

What surgery will be like for you depends on a number of things including your type of cancer, the type of operation you are having, and your general health. You may have surgery as an outpatient (day surgery) or may stay one or more nights in hospital as an inpatient.

Knowing what to expect can help you to prepare and help you to recover more quickly. Most people feel worried before an operation. So ask your doctor and nurses any questions that you have about what you need to do before your operation. You can also ask them what to expect afterwards. 

Getting ready for your operation 

Before an operation you have tests to check your general health. These may be done at a pre-admission clinic 1 to 2 weeks before your operation. These may include blood tests, a chest X-ray, urine tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG) which checks how well your heart is working. Depending on the type of operation you may also have other tests. You will meet your surgeon and anaesthetist. A physiotherapist may also come to see you.

Before your operation your surgeon will explain why you need the operation, the aim of surgery, how they are going to do the surgery, any possible side effects, and the risk of complications. Once you have fully discussed this and understand it you sign a consent form.

Before some operations you may need to prepare in a particular way. You also need to stop eating and drinking for a period of time beforehand. The length of time depends on the type of operation. Just before your operation you will change into a hospital gown. You will also need to take off any jewellery and make up, and remove contact lenses and false teeth if you have them.

Everyone having an operation has an anaesthetic. This is so that you can’t feel anything. You may have a local anaesthetic, regional anaesthetic or general anaesthetic.


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What to expect

What surgery will be like for you depends on a number of factors including

  • Your type of cancer
  • The type of operation you are having
  • Your general health

You may have surgery as an outpatient (day surgery) or may stay one or more nights in hospital as an inpatient. It depends on the type of surgery you are having. Staying in hospital means that the staff can keep an eye on you and monitor your recovery.

People are often told that they need to have surgery but then have to wait a few weeks to have the operation. This can be a difficult time emotionally. But it does give you time to prepare yourself and have any tests you may need beforehand. For some people it is also a chance to sort things out at home or work.

Knowing what to expect can help you to prepare and recover. Most people feel anxious before an operation. Finding out about it can help you cope. So

  • Ask your doctors and nurses lots of questions
  • Be sure about what you need to do before the operation and what to expect afterwards
  • Get things ready to go in to hospital, such as nightwear, books, music, magazines, etc
  • Try relaxation techniques – these can be good if you are nervous
  • Try to stop smoking because it will help your recovery if you do

Below is a 360° photograph of an operating theatre. If you can't see the photograph, you can download the Adobe Flash Player from the Adobe website. Use the arrows to move the picture and look around the room.



Getting ready for your operation

There are a number of things to do before surgery, including

  • Having tests to check your general health
  • Meeting the people who will look after you
  • Signing the consent form

These may be done at a pre admission clinic before you go into hospital for your operation. This clinic may be up to two weeks before your operation. This means there is time to add regular nutritional drinks to your diet, if you have lost weight and need to build yourself up before your operation. You may need to stop taking some medicines, such as anticoagulants which thin the blood. You may need to stop these for at least a week before your operation. Sometimes you only prepare for the operation when you are admitted to hospital for your surgery. Most people are admitted on the day of their operation or the day before.


Having tests to check your general health

Before any operation you need to have some tests to make sure you are well enough to have the anaesthetic and operation. These may include

Blood tests

You will have a full blood count to check that you are able to fight infections, that your blood can clot normally, and that you aren’t anaemic. Blood tests can also check how well your liver and kidneys are working. You may have your blood type checked in case you need a transfusion during the operation.

Urine tests

You may be asked to give a urine sample so that the nurse or doctor can check that your kidneys are working normally and check for infections.

Chest X-ray

A chest X-ray shows how well your lungs are working and checks for infections.

Electrocardiogram (ECG)

An electrocardiogram checks how well your heart is working. This is the test where you have small sticky pads put on your chest that are attached to wires. It shows your heart beat as an electrical trace on a screen.

Other tests

You may need other scans or X-rays to check the position and size of your cancer and whether it has spread. Exactly what you need depends on the type of cancer you have. We have a section about cancer tests. You can also find more information about tests in the section about your cancer type.


Meeting the people who will care for you

Before your operation, as well as meeting the surgeon, you will meet the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist is responsible for your welfare during the operation and your pain control afterwards. They will examine you and ask questions about your medical history and any operations you have had in the past.

When you go for your operation you will also meet the theatre nurses. They look after you

  • While you are having your anaesthetic
  • During the operation
  • When you first come out of the operating room before going back to the ward

You may also meet the physiotherapist, who will teach you about breathing and leg exercises you may need to do after your operation. The exercises reduce your risk of chest infections and blood clots that can develop if you don’t move around for a while.


Signing the consent form

Before you have any operation you need to sign a consent form. This is a written agreement between you and the surgeon saying that you give permission for them to do the operation.

Before you sign it your surgeon will explain

  • Why you need the operation
  • Whether you have any other treatment options
  • What the aim of the surgery is
  • How they are going to do the surgery
  • Any risks or complications there may be
  • Possible side effects of the surgery and whether they are short or long term

Your surgeon will usually give you written information about the operation. The meeting is your chance to ask questions about the surgery. Your surgeon will introduce you to a specialist nurse who can explain things fully and also answer your questions. 

Having a friend or family member with you can help you understand and remember what the surgeon or nurse says. You should only sign the consent form once you understand fully about the operation.


Getting ready for surgery

Your nurse may give you a carbohydrate rich drink to have the evening before the operation. The drink gives you energy and can help you to recover more quickly.

Just before the operation you

  • Stop eating for about 6 hours and drinking clear fluids for about 2 hours – it may be shorter or longer depending on your particular operation
  • Change into a hospital gown
  • Take off jewellery and make up (including nail varnish)
  • Remove contact lenses and false teeth – usually you can keep them in until you get to the anaesthetic room and the theatre nurse will put them back in for you before you go back to the ward

For some operations, part of your body may need to be shaved. The nurse may do this on the ward. Or they may shave you when you are under anaesthetic in the operating room.

You may need to have specific preparations for some types of operation. For example, before bowel surgery, your doctor may want to make sure your bowel is empty. This usually means following a specific diet for a few days and taking medicines to completely clear the bowel. Your nurse or surgeon will give you any instructions you need.

An hour or so before you go to the operating theatre, your nurse may give you a tablet or injection to help you relax. This may make your mouth feel dry. But you can rinse your mouth with water to keep it moist.


Having an anaesthetic

You have an anaesthetic so that you can’t feel anything during the operation. Your ward nurse and a porter will take you down to the anaesthetic room, next to the operating theatre. All the doctors and nurses will wear theatre gowns and may also wear hats and masks. This reduces the chance of you getting an infection.

The anaesthetist will put a small tube into a vein in your arm (cannula) so that you can have any fluids and medicines you need during the operation.

There are different types of anaesthetics. You may have a

  • Local anaesthetic – the anaesthetist injects anaesthetic to numb the part of your body being operated on
  • Regional anaesthetic – the anaesthetist numbs a large area or part of your body, for example, using an injection into your spine (epidural) to numb your lower body
  • General anaesthetic – you are not aware of anything during the operation

With local and regional anaesthetics you may take a tablet to help you to relax as well as the injection to numb the area. You will be awake during the operation but may feel sleepy. Your doctor may suggest a regional anaesthetic if you are not fit enough for a general anaesthetic.

You have a general anaesthetic as an injection of drugs into a vein in your arm. This makes you go into a deep sleep and when you wake up, the operation will be over.

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Updated: 20 February 2014