If someone you care about is having surgery to treat cancer, it could be an anxious and uncertain time for you too. It can be difficult to watch someone go through this experience – you may want to help them, but not know how.
Being a support person
One thing you may want to do is offer to be the support person. This may involve providing practical and emotional help to the person with cancer before, during and after surgery. The surgical team may ask that there is only one support person on the day of the surgery, as there may be limited space in the waiting room.
Before surgery, you can accompany the person to appointments and help them make an informed decision about their treatment. Once they decide to have surgery, help them follow the instructions about preparing (see planning and preparation). Even if they have day surgery, you can help them to organise their personal items, paperwork, and transport to and from the hospital.
On the day of the surgery, you can stay in the surgical waiting room during the operation. The nursing staff can give you an estimation of how long you are likely to be waiting.
If you decide not to stay in the waiting room, the staff can take your contact details and call you when the surgery is finished. You may want to go outside for a walk and some fresh air, or to meet a friend or family member for support.
Visiting someone in hospital
In some situations, such as when a child or a person with special needs has surgery, visitors may be allowed in the recovery room at the discretion of the nursing staff. There are strict rules in these circumstances:
- often only one visitor at a time is permitted
- you should wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before entering the room
- you may only be allowed to stay for a brief time so the person has plenty of time to recover.
Seeing your loved one after surgery can be frightening and overwhelming. They may have drains, drips, tubes or monitors attached to them, and the anaesthetic may make them groggy, sick and confused. They will soon return to their usual self.
Regular hospital ward
If the person is moved to a hospital ward, you will need to follow usual hospital visiting hours and procedures. The medical team can give you updates about the person’s recovery and when they are likely to be discharged.
When the person returns home, you can provide valuable assistance and support. For more information, see Caring for Someone with Cancer, or contact Carers Australia on 1800 242 636.
Caring for someone after surgery
You can provide physical and emotional support to the person you are caring for in the following ways:
Help the person manage their expectations about recovery by urging them to take it easy and reinforcing that they don’t have to ‘bounce back’ right away.
Help with bathing
Assist the person to shower, if they need help.
Do some gentle exercise together, such as walking.
Listen to their concerns and feelings if they want to talk, but respect their confidentiality and privacy.
Provide practical help
For example, cook meals, set up a bedroom that is easily accessible (i.e. not upstairs), help with housework and pay bills.
Attend follow-up appointments
You can take part in the discussion, take notes or simply listen.
Expert content reviewers:
Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and University of Sydney, NSW; Chanelle Curnuck, Dietitian – Dietetics and Nutrition, Sir Charles Gairdner Osborne Park Health Care Group, WA; Department of Anaesthetics, Perioperative Medicine and Pain Medicine, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Feeney, Nurse Unit Manager, Breast, Endocrine and Gynaecology, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Rohan Miegel, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Flinders Medical Centre, SA; A/Prof Nicholas O’Rourke, University of Queensland and Head of Hepatobiliary Surgery, Royal Brisbane Hospital, QLD; Lucy Pollerd, Social Worker, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Suzanne Ryan, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Department of General Surgery, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
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The information on this webpage was adapted from Understanding Surgery - A guide for people with cancer, their families and friends (2023 edition). This webpage was last updated in May 2023.