Surgery involves staying in hospital and having an operation. Most surgeries for cancer require you to have an anaesthetic that will put you to sleep for the operation. Surgery is a common way of removing some cancers. When you wake after the surgery you may feel sleepy and a bit sick, but soon you will feel better.

During surgery, some people have a small area around the cancer taken out, while others need a big area around the cancer taken out. It depends on what type of cancer and where it is.

Some people have one operation, while others need more than one. In some cases, this might be the only treatment needed.

Your doctors will talk to you about what they recommend and what options are best for you.

Yarn with your doctor, nurse, or Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health worker.

Where can I have surgery?

You can have surgery in most hospitals in Australia. But it’s likely your doctor will recommend surgery in a major hospital that will be in a city or large regional town.

You might need to have some tests done before surgery at the same hospital where you will have surgery. Most times, you will be admitted for a stay in hospital. How long you stay will depend upon what surgery you have done and your recovery after the surgery.

Read more about help with travel and accommodation.

What can happen after surgery?

Most people get through surgery well, without too many worries.

Some common side effects after surgery can be pain, tiredness, swelling and bruising of the wound. Because surgery mostly needs cutting of the skin and inside the body, some people can get some bleeding after surgery. Some people can also get an infection at the part where the surgery was or other parts of the body, such as the chest.

Surgery is offered if there is a chance of removing the cancer completely or to reduce the symptoms from the cancer. If you have surgery, there’s a small chance that it won’t work or do what it was supposed to do.  There may be part of the cancer left in your body after surgery, which may mean that you need more surgery or other treatments (such as radiotherapy or chemotherapy).

It is a common myth that cancer can spread once it is exposed to air, but this is not true.

Having surgery can be scary for mob, especially if we are away from home and on our own. Arrange to have family with you. There is assistance available for travel and accommodation for you and your family. Mob who have had surgery say that connecting to Country locally, when in hospital, helps. They also advise mob to have family with them, ask for local mob to visit and get messages from home. You can yarn with Aboriginal and/or Torres Strait Islander health workers about other things to do to look after your spiritual and emotional wellbeing.

Traditional healing, bush medicine, cultural practices, Women’s Business and Men’s Business can be used to help with healing after surgery.

What questions should I ask?

If your doctor says you should have surgery, here are some questions you can ask. Of course, you can add your own, too.

  • What type of operation will I have?
  • What exactly will you do during the operation?
  • Will you remove part of the tumour or all of the cancer?
  • How long will the surgery take?
  • What type of anaesthetic will I have?
  • When will I meet the anaesthetist?
  • What are the risks?
  • What are the side-effects of the surgery?
  • Will I have any pain? How will it be managed?
  • Will I stay in hospital? For how long?
  • Will I need physical rehabilitation? Where?
  • When I go home, will you give me a letter about everything that happened?
  • Can surgery spread the cancer?
  • Will I have other treatments?
  • What if I say no?
  • What supports are available for me?
  • How can I combine any traditional healing or bush medicine before or after surgery?
  • When can I have family with me at the hospital before and after surgery?
  • If my cancer is considered Women’s Business or Men’s Business, how can I request only female or male doctors and nurses?

Understanding treatment options

Surgery is a major part of treatment for many cancers, especially when the cancer is localised and has not spread.