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Caring for someone having surgery

If someone you care about is having surgery to treat cancer, it could be an anxious and uncertain time for you too. It can be difficult to watch someone go through this experience – you may want to help them, but not know how.

Being a support person

You may want to offer to be the support person. This involves providing practical and emotional help to the person with cancer before, during and after surgery.

Before surgery, you can accompany the person to appointments and help them make an informed decision about their treatment. Once they decide to have surgery, you can help them follow any instructions they are given, organise their personal items and paperwork, and provide transport to and from the hospital.

On the day of the surgery, you can stay in the surgical waiting room during the operation. The surgical team may ask that there is only one support person, as there may be limited space in the waiting room. The nursing staff can give you an idea of how long the wait will be. You may want to go outside for a walk and some fresh air, or to meet a friend or family member for support. The staff can take your contact details and call you when the surgery is finished.

Visiting someone in hospital

Seeing your loved one after surgery can be frightening and overwhelming. They may have drains, drips, tubes or monitors attached to them, and the anaesthetic may make them groggy, sick and confused. Most people soon return to their usual self.

Each hospital has different visiting policies. As a general guide:

Recovery room – In some situations, such as when a child or a person with special needs has surgery, nursing staff may allow visitors into the recovery room. There are strict rules in these circumstances. Often only one visitor at a time is permitted; you should wash your hands or use hand sanitiser before entering the room; and you may only be allowed to stay for a brief time.

Intensive care or high dependency unit – Visiting hours are more limited and visitors are usually restricted to immediate family members. Staff will need to let you into the unit. You may also have to wear special clothing, and wash your hands when entering and leaving.

Regular hospital ward – If the person is moved to a hospital ward, you will need to follow usual hospital visiting hours and procedures. The medical team can give you updates about the person’s recovery and when they are likely to be discharged.

Consider having one person who rings the hospital for updates, and shares the information with family members and friends.

Caring for someone after surgery

When the person returns home, you can provide valuable physical assistance and emotional support to the person you are caring for:

Be encouraging – Help the person manage their expectations about recovery by urging them to take it easy and reinforcing that they don’t have to “bounce back” right away.

Help with bathing – Assist the person to shower, if they need help.

Exercise together – Do some gentle exercise together, such as walking.

Be thoughtful – Listen to their concerns and feelings if they want to talk, but respect their confidentiality and privacy.

Attend follow-up appointments – You can take part in the discussion, take notes or simply listen.

Download our booklet ‘Caring for Someone with Cancer’

Featured resource

Understanding Surgery

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed April 2019 by the following expert content reviewers: Prof Andrew Spillane, Surgical Oncologist, Melanoma Institute of Australia, and Professor of Surgical Oncology, The University of Sydney Northern Clinical School, NSW; Lynne Hendrick, Consumer; Judy Holland, Physiotherapist, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Kara Hutchinson, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St Vincent’s Hospital Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Declan Murphy, Urologist and Director of Genitourinary Oncology, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Caitriona Nienaber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Prof Stephan Schug, Director of Pain Medicine, Royal Perth Hospital, and Chair of Anaesthesiology and Pain Medicine, The University of Western Australia Medical School, WA; Dr Emma Secomb, Specialist Surgeon, Hinterland Surgical Centre, QLD.