Preparing for surgery

What happens before your operation will vary slightly depending on exactly where your cancer is and the type of operation you are having.

Waiting for your surgery date

You may be told that you need to have surgery but then have to wait a few weeks for 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. It is also a chance to sort things out at home or work, should you need to.

You might feel anxious before an operation. But the more you know about what is going to happen, the less frightening it will seem. 

Tips for coping with surgery

  • Ask your doctors and nurses lots of questions about the operation.
  • 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 and magazines.
  • Try relaxation techniques as these can be good if you are nervous.
  • Try to stop smoking because it helps your recovery if you do.

What happens before surgery?

Before surgery you:

  • have tests to check your general health 
  • meet members of your team, including the surgeon
  • discuss the operation with your surgeon and sign a consent form

This may all happen at a pre assessment clinic, up to 2 weeks before your operation. This allows time to add nutritional drinks to your diet if you need to build yourself up before surgery. You might also need to stop taking some medicines, such as anticoagulants which thin the blood.

Sometimes you only prepare for the operation once you are admitted to hospital for your operation.

Most people are admitted on the morning of their operation or the day before.

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

Blood tests include 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 Open a glossary item. 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 blood transfusion Open a glossary item during the operation.

Urine tests

Your doctor or nurse may ask you to give a urine sample so that they can check that your kidneys are working normally. They can also check for infections.

You might have a pregnancy test. 

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.

Who you might meet before your operation

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

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.

Nurse or health care assistant

They will check your:

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

They also check what help and support you have to see what you will need when you go home.

Specialist cancer nurse

Your specialist nurse can talk through your treatment plan and try to answer any questions that you have. They are usually your main point of contact, and care for you throughout your treatment. 

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

They 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.

Speech and language therapist

Speech and language therapists don't just help people with speech problems. They also help people who have difficulty swallowing after surgery to the head and neck area. They assess you and can advise on the right texture of food or fluid to help you swallow safely.

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 blood clots forming in your legs. You might also have medicines to stop the blood from clotting. You have them as small injections under the skin.

You start the injections before your operation. You might also wear compression stockings and pumps on your calves or feet to help the circulation.

Your nurse and physiotherapist will get you up out of bed quite quickly after your surgery. This is to help prevent chest infections and blood clots forming.

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

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

You might also see a specialist nurse who can go over the details again. They are able to 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 remember and understand what the surgeon or nurse says. You should only sign the consent form once you understand fully about the operation.

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