What is surgery?

Surgery is a medical procedure to examine, remove or repair tissue. For example, it can be used to diagnose or remove cancer. We have more information on when surgery is used.

The type of surgery you have, and how long you stay in hospital for, depends on your situation. Your healthcare team will talk to you about this. They will explain:

  • how you can prepare for the surgery
  • the possible side effects and complications of the surgery
  • how you recover from the surgery.

They will give you written information explaining this before you agree (consent) to have treatment.

You may also find it helpful to read more about type of cancer you have. This includes specific information on the types of surgery you may have.

Booklets and resources

Other treatments and surgery

You may have other treatments in combination with surgery. This could be:

  • before surgery, to shrink the cancer and make surgery possible – this is called neoadjuvant treatment
  • before surgery, to reduce the amount of surgery needed
  • after surgery, to get rid of any remaining cancer cells and reduce the risk of cancer coming back – this is called adjuvant treatment.

Treatments include:

You can read more about this in our information about the type of cancer you have.

Types of surgery

There are different ways of doing cancer surgery. The main types include:

  • Open surgery

    Open surgery is when the surgeon makes a single, often large, cut. Sometimes they make more than one cut. For example, in breast surgery, they may make another cut in the armpit area (axilla) so that they can remove the lymph nodes.

  • Keyhole surgery (laparoscopic)

    In keyhole surgery, the surgeon makes several small cuts instead of a single large cut. This leaves a much smaller wound, so you usually recover faster.

    The surgeon puts a thin tube with a light and camera on the end through the small cuts in the skin. This tube is called a laparoscope. It allows the surgeon to examine the area and remove tissue through the cuts.

    You may also find it helpful to read more about the type of cancer you have. This includes specific information on the tests or types of surgery you may have.

  • Robotic surgery

    Robotic surgery is when keyhole surgery is helped by a machine. Instead of the surgeon holding the laparoscope and the surgical equipment, these are attached to robotic arms. The surgeon controls the robotic arms, which can move very precisely.

    This is very specialised surgery and only available in some hospitals in the UK.

  • Endoscopic surgery

    Sometimes tissue can be removed without making any cuts through the skin. The doctor uses a thin, flexible tube with a light and camera on the end to examine areas inside the body. This tube is called an endoscope. The surgeon passes the endoscope through an opening in the body, such as the mouth or back passage (rectum).

    Instruments can be passed through the endoscope to remove a sample of tissue (biopsy), or sometimes pre-cancerous cells or small cancers.

    Sometimes an endoscope is used to give treatments that destroy pre-cancerous cells or cancer cells. These include light beams (laser therapy), electricity (electrosurgery), freezing (cryosurgery), and heat (radiofrequency ablation).


Preparing for surgery

Your healthcare team will plan your operation carefully. They will explain about the surgery, the possible side effects, and what to expect.

You may have a pre-assessment appointment 1 to 2 weeks before the surgery. This is usually with a nurse, who will do some tests and checks before your surgery. They will also help you prepare for your surgery and you can ask them any questions you may have.

We have more information about preparing for surgery.

Your surgery team

In most hospitals, a team of specialists will agree on a plan of treatment for you. This is called a multidisciplinary team (MDT). It will include your surgeon, nurses and other types of healthcare professionals. Who you meet will depend on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • the operation you are having
  • if you are having any other treatments.

We have more information about your multidisciplinary team (MDT) for surgery.

What happens after surgery?

When you wake up after surgery

Your doctor or nurse will explain what to expect when you wake up after surgery. If it is a big operation, you may wake up in intensive care or a high dependency recovery unit. You usually move back to the ward within a day or so.

How you feel when you wake up will depend on what kind of surgery you had. You may have the following:

  • side effects, such as pain, or feeling sick. Tell your nurse if this happens and they can give you something to help.
  • a drip of fluids into a vein in your arm
  • a tube (drain) put into your wound to help remove any extra fluid. Your doctor or nurse will tell you about this beforehand.

How long you are in hospital will depend on what type of surgery you had. You are usually encouraged to get up and move around as soon as you feel able to. This can help with recovery.

Wound care

Your nurse will look after your wound while you are in hospital. They will explain how to look after it at home. Some people may need their dressings changed by a community nurses or their practice nurse.

Complications of surgery

Your doctor or nurse will explain about any complications to look out for. If you feel unwell or have any problems while you are at home, contact the hospital straight away on the number they give you.

Follow-up after your operation

You usually see your surgeon or clinical nurse specialist (CNS) a few weeks after your surgery. They will check the scar and make sure everything is healing properly. They will also give you advice about how soon you can get back to work, travel or drive again.

Your follow-up will depend on:

  • the type of cancer you have
  • what kind of operation you had
  • if you are having any other treatments.

It may be with your surgeon or sometimes with your nurse. They will explain how often you will have follow-up appointments.

We have more information about what happens after surgery.

Information about coronavirus

We understand that people are worried about coronavirus (COVID-19). You may have questions about the different vaccines, or you may be worried about how the pandemic will affect your cancer treatment. We have detailed information about coronavirus and cancer treatment here.

Talk to an expert

We know cancer throws a lot your way, and right now, the coronavirus pandemic is making it even tougher. If you're worried about something, and you need to talk to someone, whatever is on your mind, we're here to listen.

To speak to our experts, you can:

Get this information in another language or format

We are committed to making our website as accessible as possible, to make sure that everyone can use it.

We have information about surgery in over 16 languages, and in other formats including British Sign Language videos and easy read booklets.

If we don't have what you are looking for, you can ask for information to be translated for free or provided in a format to suit you. Email us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk or call us on 0808 808 00 00.

About our information

  • References

    Below is a sample of the sources used in our general surgery information. If you would like more information about the sources we use, please contact us at cancerinformationteam@macmillan.org.uk

    National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Surgical site infections: prevention and treatment NICE guidelines (NG125). April 2019. Available from: www.nice.org.uk (accessed August 2019).

    National Institute for Health and Excellence (NICE). Venous thromboembolism in over 16s: reducing the risk of hospital-acquired deep vein thrombosis or pulmonary embolism NICE guidelines (NG89). March 2018. Available from: www.nice.org.uk (accessed August 2019).

    Wyntner-Blyth V and Moorthy K. Prehabilitation: preparing patients for surgery. BMJ 2017; 358: j3702 doi: 10.1136/bmj. j3702 (accessed August 2019).

    The British Association of Urological Surgeons Limited (baus.org.uk). The BAUS Enhanced Recovery Programme. Available from: www.baus.org.uk (accessed July 2019).

  • Reviewers

    This information has been written, revised and edited by Macmillan Cancer Support’s Cancer Information Development team. It has been reviewed by expert medical and health professionals and people living with cancer. It has been approved by Chief Medical Editor, Professor Tim Iveson, Consultant Medical Oncologist.

    Our cancer information has been awarded the PIF TICK. Created by the Patient Information Forum, this quality mark shows we meet PIF’s 10 criteria for trustworthy health information.

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 31 December 2016
Next review: 30 June 2019

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum
Trusted Information Creator - Patient Information Forum

Our cancer information meets the PIF TICK quality mark.

This means it is easy to use, up-to-date and based on the latest evidence. Learn more about how we produce our information.