Preparing for surgery
Your surgery is planned carefully by your team. They will explain what to expect and how you can plan ahead and prepare for your surgery.
Your healthcare team will plan your operation carefully. You can read specific information about surgery in our information about the type of cancer you have.
Your surgeon and anaesthetist are responsible for your well-being during and after surgery. They make sure you are well enough to have the operation. You may have an appointment at a pre-assessment clinic before your operation to have some checks and tests.
It is important you understand everything about the operation, including possible complications and side effects. You should have an opportunity to talk to your surgeon and specialist nurse about the operation. They may give you written information about it, and about any preparation you need to do. This may happen during an outpatient appointment or at the pre-assessment clinic.
They will ask you to sign a consent form to say you understand the information provided and agree to the operation. No treatment will be given without your consent.
Your emotional well-being
If you feel anxious, talk to your specialist nurse or someone from your healthcare team or pre-assessment clinic. They can offer advice and information, which may help. They may be able to help you contact organisations, support groups or people who have had the same operation.
Changes to your body
Some operations change the way your body looks or works. This can affect the way you think and feel about your body (body image). There is a lot of support available. Talk to your specialist nurse or doctor about your concerns. They should be able to help you, or arrange for you to see a counsellor. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.
Work and finances
Some hospitals have an enhanced recovery programme for certain types of surgery. This aims to reduce the time you spend in hospital and help you to recover as quickly as possible.
For example, you may be given a diet and exercises to do before surgery to make sure you are as healthy as possible. This is sometimes called prehabilitation (see below). You may also have to take supplement drinks. After surgery, the nurses get you out of bed and encourage you to start drinking and eating, as early as possible. Research has shown that this can improve your recovery time.
Your healthcare team may suggest things you can do to improve your general health before surgery. This is sometimes called prehabilitation and it can reduce the risk of complications such as blood clots and slow-healing wounds. It can also help you to recover faster.
Prehabilitation can include:
- stopping smoking (if you smoke) at least 2 weeks before surgery is very important
- losing weight or gaining weight, if you need to
- eating healthily
- being more physically active
- drinking less alcohol – there is more information about alcohol and drinking guidelines at drinkaware.co.uk.
Depending on the operation, your doctor may refer you to a physiotherapist. They will show you exercises to do before and after surgery. Your doctor will also review your medication to make sure any other health conditions you have are well controlled.
You may be referred to see a counsellor or psychologist before surgery. This could be if the operation involves a major change, such as losing a part of the body or a change in appearance.
At a pre-assessment clinic, you will see a nurse who will prepare you for your operation and check you are well enough to have surgery. This usually happens 1 to 2 weeks before your operation. You may want to take someone to the appointment with you.
If you have other medical conditions, such as heart or lung problems, you may also need to see an anaesthetist. This might be at another clinic. The nurse will ask questions about your medical history. They will ask you to list all the prescribed medicines you take, and any vitamins or herbal supplements.
They may give you specific instructions about when to take certain medicines before your operation. This is important, especially if you take medicines to thin your blood (anticoagulants) or to manage diabetes or high blood pressure.
Tests before surgery
The nurse will arrange these tests:
- take your blood pressure
- take your temperature
- weigh you.
They may also do some of the following:
- take a blood test
- test your urine (pee)
- do a pregnancy test, if necessary
- take swabs from your nose and other parts of your body – this is to check for bacteria called MRSA.
Sometimes the nurse will arrange further tests, such as:
About your hospital stay
Your nurse will give you information about:
- when to come into hospital – this is usually on the day of your operation, or the day before
- how long your hospital stay is expected to be
- when you can have visitors
- what to bring to hospital with you
- when to stop eating or drinking before surgery.
Depending on the operation you are having, the nurse might give you some nutritional drinks to take 2 days before surgery. These help the body prepare for the period when you are not eating or drinking. They may also help your recovery.
The nurse may also give you an antiseptic body wash to use for a few days before your operation.
They will also talk to you about going home from hospital. This helps prepare you for what to expect. It means you can talk about whether you are likely to need any extra support.
It is important to follow the advice you are given by your surgeon or nurse in preparing for your operation. But you might also need to make some arrangements for yourself for when you are in hospital. Here are some tips:
Help at home
If someone is going to care for you when you come home from hospital, tell the nurse at the clinic.
Tell family and friends the hospital’s visiting hours and give them a contact number.
Getting to hospital
If someone is taking you to hospital, make sure you tell them in advance when the appointment is so they can make sure they are able to help.
Cancel anything like a milk delivery for the time you will be in hospital.
What to take to the hospital
It is helpful to make a list of all the things you might need and start packing a few days before the operation. This may include:
- comfortable, loose-fitting clothing, underwear and footwear that is easy to put on
- personal toiletries
- things to read or music to listen to
- a small amount of cash
- your regular medication
- your glasses or contact lenses
- your mobile phone
- your house keys (unless you leave them with someone else).
You usually go into hospital on the day of your operation, or the day before. When you arrive, the nurses will explain what to expect and give you some instructions.
Do not be afraid to ask questions if you are not sure about anything. You can also talk to a nurse if you have any concerns about coping when you go home from hospital. You can also talk to our cancer support specialists.
We have more information about going home from hospital.
Eating or drinking before a general anaesthetic
If you are going into hospital on the day of your operation, you will be asked not to eat or drink anything for a few hours. This is sometimes called nil-by-mouth. If you have diabetes, make sure the doctors and nurses know about this.
Follow any advice you are given at the pre-assessment clinic about taking your usual medicines. Sometimes you can still take these with a sip of water, but you should check with your healthcare team. If you are unsure, ask the doctor and nurses.
Washing before your operation
You will usually be asked to have a shower or bath before your operation. This is to make sure your skin is clean and to reduce the risk of infection.
The body hair in the area being operated on may need to be shaved, but this might be done in the operating theatre.
What to remove before surgery
You will also be asked to remove any contact lenses, make-up, nail polish, false nails, jewellery and piercings. You will probably do most of these things at home. Try to leave jewellery or anything valuable at home.
Your doctors and nurses may ask you to wear compression stockings during your operation and for a short time afterwards. Compression stockings (also called anti-embolic stockings) reduce the risk of getting a blood clot in the legs. A nurse will assess your risk and take your measurements. They will show you how to put the stockings on properly.
Your nurse or doctor will tell you when you will be taken to the operating theatre.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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).
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.