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Preparing for your surgery

Read about what happens before surgery, the people you’ll meet and the exercises you need to do.

Tests to check you are fit for surgery

You have tests before your operation to check:

  • your fitness for an anaesthetic, if you need one
  • that you’ll make a good recovery from surgery

You might not need all of these tests if you had them when you were diagnosed. Tests include:

  • blood tests to check your general health and how well your kidneys are working
  • an ECG to check that your heart is healthy
  • breathing tests (called lung function tests)
  • an echocardiogram (a painless test of your heart using sound waves)
  • a chest x-ray to check that your lungs are healthy

Pre assessment clinic

Your pre assessment appointment prepares you for your operation. You usually have it 1 to 2 weeks before your surgery.

You meet members of your treatment team at this appointment and you can sign the consent form to agree to the operation.

Ask lots of questions. It helps to write down all your questions beforehand to take with you. The more you know about what is going to happen, the less frightening it will seem.

You can ask more questions when you go into hospital so don’t worry if you forget to ask some.  At the hospital you might meet:

The surgeon

A member of the surgical team will tell you about:

  • the operation you are going to have
  • the benefits of having surgery
  • the possible risks
  • what to expect afterwards

Your surgeon will also explain whether you are going to have a hole made into your neck (a tracheostomy) - and what this involves.

The anaesthetist

The anaesthetist gives you the anaesthetic and looks after you during the operation. They make sure you’re fit enough for the surgery.

The clinical nurse specialist

The nurse checks your:

  • general health
  • weight
  • blood pressure
  • pulse
  • temperature

The nurse also checks what help and support you have to see what you will need when you go home. They are your point of contact and care for you throughout your treatment.

In case you need to have a tracheostomy, the clinical nurse specialist will also tell you how you can look after it. 

The dietitian

The dietitian gives you help and advice about managing your diet. They:

  • help you get as well as possible before your operation
  • explain how the surgery affects your diet
  • give useful tips on how to increase your nutrients and calories
  • might give you nutritional supplement drinks to have before surgery

Some people need a feeding tube in their stomach or small bowel. This makes sure you get the nutrition you need before your surgery.

The physiotherapist

The physiotherapist assesses how well you can move around. They let the doctors know if there is anything that could affect your recovery.

The physios also teach you leg and breathing exercises to do after your operation to help with recovery. Learning how to do the exercises beforehand makes it easier afterwards.

The speech and language therapist 

Sometimes having surgery to the mouth and oropharynx can cause problems with speech. A speech and language therapist will talk to you about how to communicate afterwards.

Learning breathing and leg exercises

Breathing exercises help to stop you from getting a chest infection. If you smoke, it helps if you can stop at least a few weeks before your operation.

Leg exercises help to stop clots forming in your legs. You might also have medicines to stop the blood from clotting. You have them as small injections just under the skin. They are heparin, tinzaparin or dalteparin.

You start the injections just before your operation. You might also wear compression stockings.

This 3-minute video shows you how to do the breathing and leg exercises.


Smoking is a main risk factor for mouth and oropharyngeal cancer. And continuing smoking increases your risk of the cancer coming back. Smoking can also slow down wound healing and make complications more likely after surgery. 

Your doctor will encourage you to stop smoking before the surgery. But it can be difficult if you have smoked for a long time. 

The evening before

Your nurse might give you a carbohydrate rich drink to have the evening before the operation. You might also have it on the morning of surgery. The drink gives you energy and can speed up your recovery. Your nurse will check your blood pressure, pulse and breathing rate.

If you have recently been finding eating and drinking difficult, you may have fluids through a drip (intravenous infusion) into your arm before your surgery. This will prevent dehydration before your operation.

Last reviewed: 
14 Oct 2014
  • Cancer and its management (7th edition)
    J Tobias and D Hochhauser, 2010

  • The Royal Marsden Hospital Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures (8th Edition) 
    L Dougherty and S Lister. (Editors)

    Wiley-Blackwell, 2011   

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