Surgery: the basics

Surgery is a local treatment, which means it only targets the part of your body that’s affected by cancer. If your cancer hasn’t spread, it might be the only treatment you need. Surgery is used to cut out a tumour and a small amount of healthy surrounding tissue – to make sure as many cancer cells as possible are taken away. Chemo and radiotherapy are often used after surgery, to kill any last cancer cells that still haven’t taken the hint.


What's involved?

The type of surgery you have depends on the type of cancer you have. Your doctor and surgeon will talk you through everything beforehand, and you’ll have a general anaesthetic so you won’t be awake during the op.

Some cancers can be treated using keyhole surgery, when a surgeon inserts a camera into your body and removes the tumour looking at a TV screen, using video taken by the camera. It takes less time to recover from keyhole surgery, but it’s only suitable for cancers near your belly and pelvis, and occasionally in your chest.

How long does it take?

The length of your operation depends on the type of cancer you have and where it is. Sometimes, if a surgeon finds your cancer has spread more than expected, your op might take longer than planned. But your doctors will let you know how long it will last – and how long it might take you to recover, too.

Any side effects?

Your doctors will let you know about the potential side effects of your operation and how to deal with them, but the most common ones include:

Anaesthetic blues. You might feel fine after an anaesthetic, but they can do strange things to you. You might feel cold, sick, groggy or confused. Or you might feel sad, teary or anxious. This usually passes pretty quickly though.

Pain. You won’t feel pain during surgery, but you may feel it afterwards. Your nurses will give you painkillers, which will make a big difference, and you’ll also quickly figure out which movements to avoid. Try to resist the temptation to keep testing to see if things feel any better – patience is good!

Bruises and swelling. You’ll get bruising and swelling as your body repairs the wound created by surgery. If this doesn’t improve as the days and weeks pass – or if you wound bleeds after your operation – get in touch with your doctor.

Fatigue. It’s a clever thing, your body. After surgery, it focuses most of its energy on healing the affected area. But that can leave you feeling tired – especially as you’ll still be getting over the anaesthetic and might not fancy eating much either. Give yourself time to recover, take it easy and drop plenty of hints about the kind of magazines you like to read...

Infection. Your surgery team will do everything they can to prevent infection, but it can still happen. If your wound gets warm or red or starts leaking fluid, get in touch with your doctor straight away – you might need antibiotics.

Not wanting food. This is a common one, but usually passes in a few weeks. In the meantime, eat what you can when you fancy it – and look forward to pigging out when you get your appetite back.

What will it do?

If you’re having surgery to treat cancer, the ideal outcome is that your cancer hasn’t spread and surgery removes a tumour and all cancerous cells. The tissue that’s removed during your op will be sent for analysis to help doctors decide if you need further treatment.

Surgery can also be used in other ways during cancer. It can be used to reduce the pain caused by advanced cancer – by removing cancer cells that are touching a nerve, for instance. And it can be used to reconstruct parts of the body – like your bladder or breast – that have been removed during your treatment.

Questions to ask

Never be afraid to ask questions about your cancer. Ask, ask and ask again. And if you don’t understand the answers you get, keep asking until you do.

If your doctor recommends surgery, you might like to ask:

  • What will be removed during surgery
  • What the side effects might be, and how you can reduce them
  • Whether there will be any long-term side effects
  • What the surgery is meant to achieve
  • How effective it’s likely to be
  • When you’ll be able to go home after the op
  • How long it’s likely to take to recover
  • Whether/when you need to have any stitches taken out
  • Whether any other treatments might work.