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

What your surgery will be like depends on a number of things, including your type of cancer, the type of operation you are having and your general health. You might 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 might be done at a pre admission clinic 1 to 2 weeks before your operation. They may include blood tests, a chest X-ray, urine tests and an electrocardiogram (ECG) to check how well your heart is working. Depending on the type of operation you might also have other tests. You meet your surgeon and anaesthetist. A physiotherapist may also come to see you.

Before your operation your surgeon explains

  • why you need the operation
  • the aim of surgery
  • how they are going to do the surgery
  • any possible side effects
  • the risk of complications

Once you have fully discussed this and understand it you sign a consent form.

Before some operations you might 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 change into a hospital gown. You 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 might have a local anaesthetic, regional anaesthetic or general anaesthetic.


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What to expect

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

  • your type of cancer
  • the type of operation you are having
  • your general health

You might 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. 

Tips for coping with surgery

  • 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 helps 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 might 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 might 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
  • urine tests
  • a chest X-ray
  • an electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • other tests

Blood tests

You 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 might 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 might 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.


Meeting the people who will care for you

Before your operation, as well as meeting the surgeon, you meet the anaesthetist. The anaesthetist is responsible for your welfare during the operation and your pain control afterwards. They 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 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 might also meet the physiotherapist, who teaches 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 explains

  • why you need the operation
  • whether you have any other treatment options
  • what the aim of the surgery is
  • how they will do the surgery
  • any risks or complications
  • possible side effects of the surgery and whether they are short or long term

The meeting is your chance to ask questions about the surgery. Your surgeon introduces you to a specialist nurse who can go over details again, perhaps in more detail, and also answer your questions. Your surgeon or specialist nurse usually gives you written information about the operation.

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 might 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 keep them in until you get to the anaesthetic room and the theatre nurse puts them back in for you before you go back to the ward
  • You may be given compression stockings to wear -these help prevent you from getting a blood clot if you have to remain in bed for a long time after surgery

For some operations, part of your body might need to be shaved. This is usually done when you are under anaesthetic in the operating room. A nurse may do this on the ward.

You might 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 might 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 take you down to the anaesthetic room, next to the operating theatre. All the doctors and nurses wear theatre gowns and might also wear hats and masks. This reduces the chance of you getting an infection.

The anaesthetist 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 aren't 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 are awake during the operation but might 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 is over.


For more information

Find out about

Types of cancer

Cancer tests

Coping with cancer emotionally

Coping with cancer physically

High calorie drinks

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Updated: 12 April 2016