To make the process of planning and having surgery easier, you need to:
- have the required preoperative tests
- understand the risks and possible complications, and give your informed consent
- follow specific instructions about how to prepare for surgery.
During a preoperative assessment appointment, your medical team will check your fitness for surgery. The health professionals you see will vary depending on the type of cancer and surgery and your general health, but they could include:
- the surgeon or another member of the surgical team, such as a resident medical officer or registrar
- the anaesthetist or another member of the anaesthesia team, such as a specialist nurse or registrar
- a physiotherapist to show you exercises to do before surgery
- to improve the chances of a smooth recovery.
You will be asked about your medical history and any medicines you are taking. You may also have tests such as blood tests, urine tests and a chest x-ray, and imaging tests such as CT, MRI or PET scans. You probably won’t need to have all of these tests and scans.
Tell the doctor if you are taking any over-the-counter or herbal medicines, as these could affect the surgery and your recovery.
You will be told whether you will have surgery as an inpatient or outpatient, what to take to hospital, and other useful information. Your legs may be measured for stockings to help reduce the chance of developing a blood clot in your veins (deep vein thrombosis or DVT). You might wear these during surgery and for a short time afterwards.
If you will need support services after surgery, such as the advice of a dietitian or social worker, you will be given referrals for these.
If you are having minor surgery, you may not need to attend a preoperative assessment appointment. Your doctor will discuss the surgery and how to prepare at one of your usual appointments.
You may be able to have some appointments with your surgeon and other health professionals at home by phone or video call. This is known as telehealth and it can reduce the number of times you need to travel to appointments. This may be particularly helpful if you have to travel a long way to see your doctors. Telehealth can also reduce the risk of catching an infection.
Although telehealth can’t replace all face-to-face appointments, you can use it to talk about a range of issues including test results, prescriptions, help with side effects, and nutrition and exercise advice.
For more information, talk to your treatment team, read our Telehealth for Cancer Patients and Carers fact sheet or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Learn more about telehealth
Looking after your health before surgery
The suggestions below may improve your strength, help you cope with side effects and lead to a smoother recovery.
- Stop smoking - if you smoke tobacco or vape, aim to quit as soon as possible. Continuing to smoke or vape can increase the risk of complications after surgery, and delay your healing and recovery. Quitting smoking or vaping can be difficult - for support, talk to your doctor or call the Quitline on 13 78 48.
- Exercise - surgery places a strain on the body, including the heart and lungs. Exercise will help build up your strength to cope with recovery and reduce the risk of complications after surgery. Talk to your doctor or physiotherapist about the amount and type of exercise that is right for you, and any precautions to take.
- Improve nutrition - healthy food can help your body cope with the stress of surgery, improve your strength, and assist with your recovery. A dietitian can suggest foods to eat to ensure you get enough energy and protein. They may also recommend you have special drinks (nutritional supplements).
- Avoid alcohol - alcohol can affect how the body works and increase the risk of complications after surgery, including bleeding and infections. Drinking even small amounts of alcohol increases the risk of developing some cancers, so it’s best to avoid alcohol after a cancer diagnosis. Talk to your doctor about your alcohol use.
- Talk to someone - you may find it useful to talk to a counsellor about how you are feeling. This can help you deal with any anxiety you are feeling about having surgery, and help you feel more in control.
Understanding the risks
Almost all medical procedures have risks, and surgery is no exception. Factors to consider when weighing up the risks and benefits include:
- the length of the operation
- the type of anaesthetic you will have
- your age and general health.
Although advances in surgical techniques have made surgery safer, there are still things that may not go as planned. Possible complications are discussed in the day of the surgery and recovering from surgery. Overall, you and your surgeon should feel that the expected benefits outweigh the possible risks. Talk to your surgeon about your options. If you are unsure, ask for a second opinion from another specialist.
“Don’t feel obligated to be treated by the first surgeon you’re referred to. It’s important to ask for recommendations from family and friends.” - Katherine
A doctor needs your agreement (consent) to perform any medical treatment. Receiving and understanding information about treatment before agreeing is called informed consent.
Adults can give their consent – or refuse it – if they have capacity. Capacity means they can understand the information about the proposed choices and make decisions based on this information.
Sometimes consent is not needed, such as in a medical emergency. However, if your surgery is planned, your doctor will discuss:
- why you need the surgery and its benefits
- other treatment options
- how they will perform the surgery
- possible side effects, risks and complications.
For more information about consent, read Cancer Care and Your Rights or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
Waiting for surgery
It’s common to have to wait for surgery. The length of time depends on many factors, including the type of cancer you have and its stage, the surgery you are having and the hospital’s schedule. In most cases, waiting doesn’t have a major impact on the surgery outcome. If you are anxious or concerned about waiting for surgery, speak to your surgeon or call Cancer Council on 13 11 20.
How to prepare
At the preoperative assessment appointment, you will be given instructions about how to prepare for the surgery based on your health and medical history. Let your treatment team know if you have any concerns about what you are asked to do. The advice you receive will cover the following issues:
Bathing and shaving
You will be told to shower or bathe either the night or morning before surgery. If you have been told that hair near the surgical site will need to be shaved, you may be asked to do it yourself before you go to hospital, or it will be done when you are admitted. In cases where there is a lot of hair at the surgical site, you will be asked to avoid shaving the area yourself, as any cuts to the area can increase the risk of infection.
Eating and drinking
Most people are told not to eat or drink for 6–12 hours before surgery. This may be called fasting or nil by mouth, and it ensures that your stomach is empty before surgery. This reduces the risk of some complications. In some cases, you can continue drinking clear fluids until two hours before surgery – your surgeon or anaesthetist will advise you on this. You should also avoid drinking alcohol and smoking for at least 24 hours before the operation.
Smoking can delay your healing and recovery time. If you smoke, try to quit before you have surgery. Giving up smoking can be difficult. For help, talk to your doctor or call the Quitline on 13 78 48.
Your doctor will tell you whether to keep taking any medicine you are on or to stop taking it in the days or weeks before surgery. If you’re instructed to fast and have to take medicine, swallow it with a small mouthful of water.
You may want to ask a friend or family member to stay in the waiting room while you are in surgery.
If you are having day surgery, you should arrange for someone to take you home when you are discharged. It’s not safe to travel alone or use public transport or a taxi, as you will still be under the effects of the anaesthetic. If your treatment centre has a social worker, they can help organise transport if necessary.
Your treatment team will let you know what personal items to take to hospital with you and what to leave at home. For example, they may tell you to take all your current medicines with you, but suggest you leave valuables, such as jewellery, at home.
You will be asked to remove nail polish, including clear polish, before surgery. Checking your fingernails during surgery is one way the anaesthetist can monitor the level of oxygen in your blood.
- Your medical team will determine if you are fit enough for surgery by looking at your medical history and doing tests and scans. This is known as a preoperative assessment.
- You will be asked whether you are taking any medicines. Tell the doctor if you are taking over-the-counter or herbal medicines, as these could affect the surgery and your recovery.
- The doctor will explain whether you will have surgery as an inpatient or outpatient. You may be measured for stockings to help prevent blood clots.
- If you will need support services after surgery, such as a dietitian, you will receive referrals for these.
- There are risks associated with any surgery. Your doctor will explain these.
- The doctor needs your agreement (consent) to perform the operation. Receiving relevant information about the benefits and risks of surgery before agreeing to it is called informed consent.
- It’s common to have to wait for surgery. Your waiting time depends on how urgent your case is and the schedule of the hospital where you will have the surgery.
- To prepare for surgery, you will be given instructions based on your health and medical history. Instructions will cover issues such as bathing and shaving, eating and drinking, medicines you are taking, transport home from the hospital, and what to take with you.
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.