For most people, the thought of having surgery will feel way out of their comfort zone. This guide will help you know more about what surgery involves, and feel reassured if you’re worried about how you’ll look and feel after it. 

It’s normal to feel anxious or to have lots of questions. But although it’s going to feel like a big deal for you, for the people who are doing it – it’s completely normal and all part of a day’s work. They’re absolute experts and will make sure that you’re safe and the experience is straightforward and pain-free.

When is surgery used?

When you’re diagnosed, you might need to have an operation called a ‘biopsy’. This is when a small piece of your tumour is removed to see if it contains cancer cells. If it does, you’ll probably need more surgery to remove the tumour at some point during your cancer treatment. 

Depending on what cancer you have, surgery might be part of your treatment plan. If you have a tumour in a specific place, for example, surgery could be the main way of getting rid of it.

You might also need to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy after you’ve had an operation to destroy any remaining cancer cells.

If your tumour is big, or if taking it off your body might damage another part of you, you might need to have chemotherapy or radiotherapy first to shrink it. This is more likely to make an operation to take the tumour off you successful. 

Or, the biopsy might be the only operation you need.

How is surgery done?

Biopsies are often done under local anaesthetic, medication which numbs an area of the body while you’re awake.

For most other operations, you’ll have general anaesthetic. This is medication which sends you to sleep while the operation takes place. When you wake up, the operation will be finished. 

Dealing with anxiety

Being put under general anaesthetic for an operation can feel scary and you might have specific fears about what might happen. Talk to your doctor or nurse. They will be able to answer your questions and dispel any common misconceptions. Remember, the team of people doing your surgery are experts and will be monitoring you the whole time to make sure you’re safe and well. 

Will I be in pain after surgery?

You might have some discomfort around the area that was operated on but painkillers will ease it. If you’re still in pain, tell the nurses as they can help with this.

Read more about the effects of surgery, including how you'll feel afterwards, scarring and life-changing surgery.

Updated March 2018, next review due 2021.