Preparing for cancer surgery

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 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 team can keep an eye on you and monitor your recovery.

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.

Meeting your team

Before your operation, a member of the surgical team will talk to you in detail about your operation.

You also meet the anaesthetist Open a glossary item. They examine you and ask questions about your medical history, and any operations you've had in the past. On the day of the operation, the anaesthetist gives you the anaesthetic and looks after you during the operation. They can also help with your pain control afterwards.

You might also meet a physiotherapist. They can assess how well you move around, and let the doctors know if there is anything that could affect your recovery.

The physiotherapist or a nurse can teach you the 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. 

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.

  • The Royal Marsden Manual of Clinical Nursing Procedures, 10th edition 
    S Lister and others (Editors)
    Wiley-Blackwell, 2020

  • Venous thromboembolism in over 16s: reducing the risk of hospital-acquired deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism
    National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2018

  • Routine preoperative tests for elective surgery 
    National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE), 2016

Last reviewed: 
19 May 2022
Next review due: 
18 Mar 2025

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