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Many people do not have long-term complications after cancer surgery. However, some people do and your surgeon should fully discuss with you the possible long-term complications of your type of surgery (and how likely they are to occur) before your operation.
The type of long-term problem and how likely it is to happen will largely depend on the type of operation you have and will vary from person to person.
You should be given the opportunity to ask your surgeon questions before your surgery so that you understand the potential risks of a permanent complication. It’s natural to be anxious about surgical operations. However, surgery can be one of the most successful treatments for cancer.
Operations are usually carried out by surgeons with a great deal of experience in treating the particular type of cancer. You may also have a specialist nurse looking after you. Before the operation, the nurse or surgeon will explain to you what scarring and other effects are likely. They’ll also explain what procedures will be followed to make sure that you get the best possible care.
Some examples of long-term complications include the following.
Occasionally, people may have nerve pain, which is more common after certain operations such as the opening of the rib cage (thoracotomy).
Some operations can occasionally cause permanent side effects due to nerve damage. For example, removal of the prostate gland (radical prostatectomy) can result in impotence| (inability to get an erection) and loss of bladder control in some people. This is because the nerves controlling these functions may have to be removed to clear the cancer.
This may also sometimes occur after operations for cancers in the lower part of the bowel (rectum).
Occasionally, if most or all of the lymph nodes in an area of the body have to be removed, you may get swelling called lymphoedema|. This is more common in the limbs near to where the lymph nodes have been removed, or if you’ve had radiotherapy| to that area too.
The lymph nodes drain fluids in the lymphatic system, so removing lymph nodes can cause fluid to build-up. It’s more likely to affect an arm or leg, although it can happen to other parts of the body. The earlier lymphoedema is picked up, the easier it is to control. Contact your doctor if you notice swelling in your hands (after surgery to the armpit) or feet (after surgery to the groin).
Some operations change the way your body looks. This may affect the way you feel about yourself physically and emotionally. There is a lot of support available, so please talk to your nurse or doctor if you have any 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|.
Content last reviewed: 1 January 2013
Next planned review: 2015
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
If you have any questions about cancer, need support or just want someone to talk to, ask Macmillan.
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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