What should I expect if I need cancer surgery?

Published: Thursday, August 31, 2023

The American Cancer Society estimates that nearly 2 million Americans will be diagnosed with some type of cancer this year, including more than 61,000 people in Georgia alone. Many of those people will be treated with some type of cancer surgery.

In fact, up to 60 percent of cancer patients will undergo cancer surgery, either as their main form of treatment or in conjunction with other types of treatment, such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

If you’ve been told you’ll need a surgical procedure as part of your cancer treatment plan, you probably have many questions. The team of oncology experts at Northeast Georgia Medical Center (NGMC), including dedicated patient navigators, can answer any questions you have specific to your treatment plan.

Keep reading as we provide answers to some commonly asked questions about cancer surgery.

How is cancer surgery used?

Surgery is used in many different ways in relation to cancer. By the time you’re diagnosed with cancer, you may have already undergone one common type of cancer surgery — a biopsy. During this surgical procedure, a small piece of tissue is taken from the body and tested, looking for cancerous cells.

After a cancer diagnosis, surgery can also be used to stage the cancer, meaning to determine how advanced the cancer is and whether it has spread.

When you think of “cancer surgery,” though, you may be thinking specifically about surgery used to treat cancer. Surgery is used to treat many different forms of cancer, including common types such as breast cancer, skin cancer and colorectal cancer, for example.

This type of surgical procedure may be used as a standalone treatment to remove cancerous cells from the body. Cancer surgery can also be used before or after other types of cancer treatment, including chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and immunotherapy.

What happens during cancer surgery?

Surgery is used in multiple ways as part of cancer treatment. In some cases, it is possible to remove the entire cancerous tumor through a surgical procedure.

In other cases, the surgical procedure will be used to “debulk” a cancerous tumor, meaning to remove as much of it as possible without damaging an organ or the body as a whole.

Cancer surgery is also used to relieve specific cancer symptoms caused by tumors that are putting pressure on parts of the body, or to reconstruct parts of the body following treatment.

In addition to cancer surgery being used in multiple ways, there are also multiple types of surgery. In some cases, minimally invasive techniques may be used to remove a tumor or part of a tumor without affecting surrounding tissue.

Many procedures are performed traditionally using scalpels and incisions, but alternative forms of surgery, such as cryosurgery (which uses extreme cold), radiofrequency ablation (which uses high-energy radio waves), laser surgery (which uses intense beams of light), and hyperthermia (which uses high heat), can also be used in cancer treatment.

NGMC offers a full spectrum of cancer surgery options, including minimally invasive procedures when possible.

What do I need to do before cancer surgery?

Knowing what to expect can provide you with peace of mind. If you’ve been told you need some type of cancer surgery, your care team will provide specific instructions on what steps you should take before surgery. You’ll want to carefully follow this guidance.

In the days leading up to surgery, you will likely undergo presurgical testing, which may include both bloodwork and imaging scans. These tests will help ensure it’s safe for you to undergo a surgical procedure, and they’ll help guide your surgeon in providing the best care.

Your instructions will also let you know whether you should refrain from eating and drinking prior to your surgical appointment, and whether you should discontinue specific medications.

What should I expect after cancer surgery?

This will vary somewhat depending on several factors, including the type of cancer you have, the stage of that cancer and your overall health. Initial recovery following cancer surgery will take place in the hospital, where you’ll be carefully monitored to ensure you don’t experience any complications or side effects as you emerge from anesthesia and begin the healing process.

Following surgery, it’s normal to feel uncomfortable and uncertain about what’s happening. Depending on the type of surgical procedure you had, you may have unfamiliar drains and catheters, at least temporarily, and you may not feel much like eating or drinking. Your care team is there to answer any questions you have and to help you cope with pain and other symptoms.

When you’re discharged from the hospital, you’ll again be provided with a set of guidelines. These postsurgical guidelines are particularly important, so it’s a good idea to have a family member or other loved one with you when they’re reviewed.

Your discharge instructions will include information about spotting the signs of an infection, how to control your pain, what you should and shouldn’t do in the days following your procedure, when it’s safe to resume certain activities, how to care for a surgical incision or wound and any follow-up appointments you should have.

Pay special attention to the information about when you should consult with your care team—some symptoms should not be ignored since they can be a sign of infection or another complication.

It’s likely you will have a follow-up appointment scheduled with your surgeon within a few days to a week after surgery. At that appointment, your care team will check to ensure your surgical incision is healing properly and that you haven’t developed any concerning symptoms.

Once you’ve recovered from the surgical procedure, you’ll also have follow-up appointments with other members of your cancer care team. These appointments will review the results of the cancer surgery and identify the next steps in your cancer treatment plan.

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When you or a loved one are navigating cancer, you can turn to Northeast Georgia Medical Center for the expertise you need.