Surgery and cancer

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Some types of cancer may require surgery as part of diagnosis or treatment. Read about what to expect before, during and after surgery as part of cancer treatment.

Key points

  • During surgery you will be given an anaesthetic to either put you to sleep or keep you comfortable during the procedure.
  • Surgery can be used to diagnose cancer, treat cancer, put in central lines or ports and repair a body part damaged by cancer or treatments.
  • You may need to spend the night in the hospital before surgery and you will not be able to eat or drink for several hours before the surgery to avoid complications with anaesthesia.
  • After surgery you will go to a recovery room to recover and wake up.
  • Even if the whole tumour is removed, there is a possibility that some cancer has spread, so you will still need chemotherapy or radiation.

What is surgery?

Surgery is another name for an operation. Generally, a person has surgery to either have a piece of tissue taken out of the body or to have something placed or repaired inside the body.

There are many different types of surgery. Some are less complicated and take less time to recover from. These are often called procedures. Others are more complicated operations and recovery can take much longer. During surgery you’ll be given an anaesthetic (say: AN-us-theh-tik), a drug to either put you to sleep during an operation or to keep you comfortable during a procedure.

No matter what kind of surgery you are having, it’s normal to feel anxious or afraid. Understanding a bit about what’s going to happen can help you feel a bit more prepared. If you have any questions, ask your doctor or nurse.

Why might I have surgery?

Surgery is a common part of treating the types of cancers that form tumours. However, not all tumours are treated with surgery. It depends on where the tumour is located and whether the cancer has spread to other parts of the body.

Surgery can be used to:

  • diagnose or identify the stage of cancer, for example through a biopsy
  • treat cancer, for example removing a tumour that is limited to one part of the body
  • treat cancer alongside other kinds of treatment such as radiation and chemotherapy
  • put in central lines, or ports, that you need for chemotherapy
  • repair a part of the body that was damaged by cancer or cancer treatment

Who performs cancer surgery?

A surgeon is a doctor who is specially trained to perform surgery. Surgeons are often specialists in one type of surgery. The kind of surgeon you have will depend on the type of surgery you need.

Central lines and ports may be placed by an interventional radiologist using image guided therapy. Biopsies may also be done by an interventional radiologist.

What will happen?

Your surgeon and your health-care team will explain the surgery to you and your parent/caregiver. They will explain what you can expect as well as the risks and benefits of having the surgery. You and/or your parent/caregiver will need to give your consent by signing a form.

Before surgery

You may need to spend the night before the surgery in the hospital. You won’t be able to eat or drink anything (not even water) for several hours before the surgery. An empty stomach lowers the risk that you may vomit (throw up) during anaesthesia, which could cause you to aspirate or choke, and damage the lungs.

When it’s time for the surgery, you will change into a gown and be brought down to the waiting room. Here you might receive some medication to help you relax and feel sleepy. Your parent/caregiver or someone else close to you, such as your boyfriend or girlfriend, can sometimes come with you to wait outside the operating room.

In the operating room

Inside the operating room all of the doctors and nurses wear special clothes, including hats and masks. This is to keep the operating room completely clean and free of germs. You will be attached to machines so that doctors and nurses can carefully monitor your heart rate, blood pressure and breathing during the surgery to keep you safe. The anaesthesiologist (say: AN-us-thee-zee-ol-uh-jist) is the specially-trained doctor who will give you an anaesthetic. Most surgeries are done using medications such as a general anaesthetic. This will put you completely to sleep so you won’t feel or remember the surgery. The anaesthesiologist will watch you carefully to make sure that you stay asleep the whole time.

After surgery

After surgery you will go to the Post-Anaesthetic Care Unit (PACU) or recovery room to wake up. A nurse will carefully monitor your heart rate, blood pressure, and breathing and will look after the part of your body that had the surgery. You will have medication for pain. You will have an IV that will give your body fluids and energy until you can eat and drink again.

A special bandage called a dressing will cover your incision (where the cut was made). The nurses will change the dressing and check the incision to make sure it is healing properly.

After you wake up from the anaesthetic you will either go back to the unit or you’ll be able to go home. You will be able to visit with your family or some friends when you feel up to it.

You will learn more about symptoms you may experience after surgery in the following sections.

Surgery and uncertainty

Even though you’ve had scans before the surgery, they don’t always show a perfect picture. So your surgeon may not know exactly what they’re going to find until they’re able to look inside your body. For this reason, your surgeon may not be able to tell you and your family exactly how the surgery will go beforehand. For example, you may not know until after the surgery whether the surgeon was able to remove the whole tumour or only a part of it.

Even if the whole tumour is removed with surgery, there is still the possibility that some cancer cells may have metastasized (spread) into another part of your body. These cells may be too small to be seen with a scan. For this reason, other treatments such as chemotherapy and radiation are used before or after surgery. You may not be sure whether the cancer is completely gone for some time.

Waiting to know whether surgery has successfully treated your cancer can be really stressful! Take a look at the sections on managing stress and emotionsdistraction and relaxation to learn more about recognizing and handling stress.

Last updated: September 3rd 2019