Getting Ready for & Recovering from Cancer Surgery
Knowing what to expect and being prepared helps expedite healing.
Knowing that you are going in for cancer surgery can be an overwhelming experience, and it's natural to feel anxious about what the procedure will involve, how much pain you have to deal with and the duration of your recovery. However, being aware of what to anticipate during and after the surgery could be beneficial.
About 60-70% of patients will undergo some type of surgery to treat their cancer. In some cases, surgery is the only treatment required. There are many reasons why a cancer patient undergoes surgery. This can include primarily to diagnose cancer like with a biopsy, for either removing a part or the entire cancer, for determining whether a cancer is localized or spread to other parts in the body called staging surgery, as a supportive measure like putting in a chemo port, for reconstruction of body parts such as breasts after mastectomy and also for relief of side effects that can be caused by cancer.
Preparing in advance for surgery can go a long way in helping your recovery and moving forward with next steps which most commonly include chemotherapy, radiation therapy or immunotherapy.
Once your cancer care team has decided that surgery is the next step in your treatment it helps to be prepared with the right questions and items that can make the process as comfortable as possible.
Ask your surgeon about their experience performing the specific procedure you are having to make sure they are qualified with the appropriate training.
Ask your surgeon what the best and worst case scenarios are. It is important that you have a good understanding and clearly set expectations so you are not caught off guard.
Make sure the facility is licensed and accredited, and emergency procedures in place. This is especially necessary if you are having surgery outside of a hospital, for example, at an outpatient facility or at your doctor’s office.
Make sure you ask whether the facility has medications, equipment, and procedures in place to handle emergencies, especially if there is no emergency facility nearby.
Read and make sure you have signed consent forms, both for treatment and to receive anesthesia, if necessary.
Be sure to talk to your anesthesiologist in preparation for surgery. They usually meet with you before surgery, closely monitor your vitals during the procedure and take care of you after to make sure your recovery is smooth and your pain is controlled.
Although you are going to be stressed due to the cancer diagnosis, spend the time before the procedure being active such as daily walks if you can, decreasing your stress levels, eating healthy and getting good sleep.
If you smoke, stop as soon as possible, even if it’s just a day or two before surgery because smoking can cause problems with breathing and recovery from anesthesia and surgery.
Talk to your health insurance company. This will help you avoid surprise medical bills. While your health and safety are your priorities, it’s also important to make sure your insurance coverage is in order before surgery so you don’t receive any unexpected bills. Make sure there are no surprise insurance gaps that occur when your insurance plan offers a low premium but limits the number of physicians in the plan’s network.
Before having a medical procedure, ask who will be involved in your care and whether they’re in your plan’s network. Call your insurance company to verify that the hospital or medical center and each physician and provider caring for you are in-network.
If you haven’t already completed a Health Care Proxy Form, it is very important that you do so. A health care proxy is a legal document that identifies the person who will speak for you if you are unable to communicate for yourself. This person should know your wishes regarding health care in case there is an emergency.
All of the above is also available to you as a Pre-surgery Checklist, should you want to download and keep it handy.
“The fitter you are going into the surgery, the better you’ll be able to recover from it.” Peter Baik, DO, FACOS, FACS, Thoracic Surgeon at Cancer Treatment Centers of America®
As the day of the surgical procedure arrives, make sure you have help in place as well as a clear understanding of expectations including pain management, when to expect normal bowel function to return, if there will be drain or bladder catheter management as well as follow up appointments. Here’s a Surgery Prep Checklist you may find useful.
Follow your pre-surgery directions and diet. Unless you’re having only local anesthesia, you may be told not to eat or drink anything after midnight before your procedure. This is because of the rare risk of food or liquid in your stomach getting into your lungs while you are under sedation or general anesthesia.
Ask about when you should stop taking your regular medications prior to surgery. Fill any prescriptions you will need after surgery.
Ask your surgeon if it’s safe to take ibuprofen or aspirin, vitamin E or herbal medications that you may have been taking previously.
Arrange for a friend or caregiver to drive you to surgery, and home.
Wear comfortable clothing. Wear or bring loose-fitting clothing. Your body might be sore or swollen from surgery, or you may have bulky bandages over your incisions.
Leave jewelry and valuables at home.
Arrange for assistance for household chores and meal preparation at least for the first week when you first get home.
If you wear contact lenses, wear your glasses instead.
Don’t wear any metal objects. Remove all jewelry, including body piercings. The equipment used during your surgery can cause burns if it touches metal.
Don’t put on any lotion, cream, deodorant, makeup, powder, perfume, or cologne on the day of surgery.
If you’re menstruating use a sanitary pad, not a tampon. You’ll get disposable underwear and a pad, if needed.
Avoid shaving or waxing. If you are getting surgery on the belly or pelvic areas do not shave or wax your abdomen, thighs or the area around your vagina or penile area for at least a week before surgery. For breast surgery patients, do not shave underarms. Shaving with a razor can nick the skin. This increases the risk of getting a wound infection. If hair needs to be removed for your operation, it will be done at the hospital with special clippers.
Even if you’re doing well after cancer surgery, it helps if you have someone staying with you for at least a week. Your caregiver can help you with eating, drinking and getting to bed and the bathroom. It also helps to create a Bring-to-surgery Checklist before undergoing surgery of things you need to remember to bring with you to the hospital and going over it with your care team.
Some items you should consider bringing include:
Health insurance card
Hearing aid and headphones
Medicine list and list of allergies
Travel sized personal care items like a toothbrush, deodorant, hair brush and other toiletry items
Your cell phone and charger
Pajamas and a robe, if you prefer
Eye mask for sleeping
Non slip socks or slippers
Clothing for the trip home
It’s important to remember that every situation is different. Your experience with surgery depends on several factors, including your type of cancer, the type of procedure you have been prescribed and your overall health.
Being prepared with the right questions and items prior to your surgery will make the process so much easier for you and your caregiver. Use the checklists in this blog to help organize yourself so you can focus on getting through surgery and recovery.
Reason to Hope
Robot-assisted surgery used to perform bladder cancer removal and reconstruction enables patients to recover far more quickly and spend significantly (20 %) less time in hospital, concludes a first-of-its kind clinical trial led by scientists in the UK. Robotic surgery reduced the chance of readmission by half (52%), and revealed a "striking" four-fold (77%) reduction in prevalence of blood clots which is a significant cause of health decline and morbidity when compared to patients who had open surgery. DOI: 10.1001/jama.2022.7393